Sunday, 24 May 2015

Glimpses of Spirit

This Pentecost Sunday, when we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit coming to the church, I want to share with you a flavour of the last week at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland - and the places I've been encouraged in seeing the breath of the Spirit still blowing through the church.
We read this morning;
Romans 8:24-26
For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.
Celebrating, today, the gift of God's Holy Spirit, we celebrate hope. The hope that all those things we can barely express, all the things we tie ourselves in knots about are safe with God and that, when we run out of words or inspiration, when we run out of steam, God is there and God's Spirit is still at work in spite of our inability to find a way through.
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God's purpose

For the past three years now I have had the privilege of attending the General Assembly as chaplain to the Youth Delegates.
Each Presbytery is invited to send one youth delegate and a further 10 delegates are nominated by the National Youth Assembly.
Sadly, not all Presbyteries are able to find a young person aged between 18 and 25 who is willing or able to serve in this capacity.
But the young folk that attend, all with different experiences and impressions of the Church of Scotland bring with them uniqueness and vitality.
Although we do our best to explain to them how varied and intense the week will be, it's pretty indescribable.
But they always not only rise to the challenge but embrace all that is thrown at them.
We gather on the Friday night before GA starts, so that we can eat together, have an orientation session in the Assembly hall and introduce ourselves.
Once we've done all that, it's back to the conference room at the hotel (we all stay together) to start prepping for the debates coming up the next day.
That's something we do each evening after dinner - prepare for the next day.
We go through the reports with delegates, we answer their questions if we can and we help them formulate any questions they might like to ask the Convenors who present reports or any comments or deliverances they might want to make.
Over the years, the Assembly has come to realise how well prepared the young people are, often better prepared than Commissioners, and their contributions are received with respect.
Some of the Youth Delegates are very articulate, some are extremely nervous and hesitant, but, with courage, they make their points and affect the decisions of the Assembly.  
We conclude each evening with worship led by the staff team.
Next morning, we gather by 8:15 for worship, led by the Young People before we make our way to the Assembly Hall.
The first day is full of ceremony.
It's quite a spectacle with bands and buglers.
Some of the spectacle is repeated each morning, as the Lord High Commissioner. The Queen's Representative arrives but it's not quite the show that it is on the Saturday in the opening ceremony.
As the Very Rev. John Chalmers handed over the reins, he remarked on how one of the things his year as Moderator had proved to him was what a high profile the church plays in civic life.
In spite of the stories of decline we hear, the church as an institution still has an important role and function in Scotland,the UK and beyond.
However, this isn't the time for the Moderator to reflect on his or her term of office - that happens on the Saturday night.
This ceremony is about handing over the role to the Moderator Elect, this year, Right Reverend Angus Morrison, who immediately takes up office and assumes responsibility.
On the Saturday evening, the outgoing Moderator addresses the Assembly and reflects on his or her term of office.
There is also a welcome for overseas Delegates on the Saturday night.
Do you remember the doves we wrote messages on in one service - some of those were in the Assembly Hall on Saturday night.
Many representatives are invited from lots of different countries and denominations.
They play a full part in proceedings, contributing to debate and bringing stories of the health of the church where they are.
Many of these delegates consider the Church of Scotland to be their mother church, responsible for bringing them faith.
This year, I was asked by some of the RevGals I've met to look out for Ken Kovacs who was the delegate from the PCUSA.
On Sunday morning, a service for GA is held in St Giles. It's always fun to attend with Youth Delegates because it's vastly different from their experience of worship but most seem to really appreciate the opportunity to be part of something so formal.
After Lunch together, we become involved with Heart and Soul - an event that takes place in Princes Street Gardens. We all tend to be involved helping out in different ways.
This year, I was involved in the Spill the Beans tent, introducing people to the worship resource that we use here. We shared with them the Psalms material that we'll be using in the summer.
We encouraged folk to take part.
Some folk saw the opportunity to advertise their vacancy at Heart and Soul-  I was waylaid with a number of Parish Profiles.
Over 6000 people took part in Heart and Soul, despite the threat of rain, although it stayed fine throughout the afternoon and the closing worship was amazing with all these folk gathered in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle.
Monday morning sees the Assembly celebrating Communion together, something many of the Youth Delegates are keen to be involved in. As you might imagine, it is some feat to organise communion for that many people in such a big venue.
The singing is always amazing.
This year, there were a few hearing challenged delegates.
One in particular, Mary, had a hearing dog, Scott. (We recently heard about hearing dogs at the Guild)
It was very moving to see all that happened at Assembly, being signed. And, throughout the week, there was a large team of interpreters involved.
Assembly is always accompanied by Fringe Events on all manner of things.
Inclusive worship, prayer meetings, seminars and receptions.
The Youth Delegates were quick to learn that it is possible to secure a free lunch every day by attending one of the Fringe Events.
During the day, folk meet up for coffee and enjoy fellowship and short breaks from the intensity of business. Or to do some book promotion.
Just one of the more inspiring speeches at Assembly came from a local delegate, Isabell Montgomerie from Ochiltree who encouraged elders present to find ways to show their minister how much they were appreciated. Isabell was involved in a special commission that took her around the country interviewing ministers and was disturbed to find that many ministers felt they were working under stressful conditions with little appreciation.
In fact, her speech was recorded and can now be found on You tube.
Each day is filled with reports and debates on the life and work of the Church of Scotland.
One of those reports honours the work of Military Chaplains.
It's always an impressive sight to see the Assembly hall filled with folk in uniform.
And the Moderator hosts a special reception for them.
A highlight for the Young people is the opportunity to report on the National Youth Assembly.
The national Youth Assembly elects a Moderator each year and, this year, it was Rachel Hutcheson from Inverness. Rachel has just completed her training as a primary school teacher and was an able moderator.
She reported on the National Youth Assembly, held last August, with the theme "In my Fathers House." 
During her year in office, Rachel was involved with the GA Moderator in a number of events, including the Christian Aid Munro Challenge which raised a phenomenal amount of money for Christian Aid's work in Nepal.
The next moderator of the NYA will be Hannah Mary Goodlad, a geologist from Shetland who works for an oil company and who is very concerned with sourcing renewable energies.
The Youth Delegates are invited to the Beating of the Retreat and a Reception at Holyrood Palace.
This is an opportunity for them to dress up and enjoy the hospitality provided.
They are so good at looking out for each other that even those who feel awkward in such social events manage to have fun and not feel left out.
On the last day, the Assembly deals with any remaining business before embarking on the Closing Ceremony.
I had never attended the closing ceremony before I became chaplain to the Youth Delegates, always choosing to head home at lunchtime on the Friday.
But it really is quite a ceremony.
Those ministers who have died in the last year are remembered, each name read, new ministers are welcomed as well as new staff and Convenors of Councils.
The Lord High commissioner then addresses the Assembly, telling of the duties he has undertaken during the week, before the clapping out ceremony when  everyone gathers in the quad to clap out the Lord High Commissioner, the Moderator and all the Assembly Officials. A weird but lovely tradition.
You may have noticed that I haven' t mentioned the issue that you probably read about or heard about on the news this week - that of ministers in same sex partnerships being able to be ordained and hold office. There were just as many opinions in the ranks of the Youth Delegates as there were with other  Commissioners. But all agreed that the church has many other issues to debate, not least the gospel we are called to proclaim.
Spending time with so many committed and enthusiastic Youth Delegates gives me great hope for the future of the Church of Scotland at home and abroad.
We give thanks for the hope we have and for the freedom to live out the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Thanks be to God. 

*Some images shared from the Church of Scotland Facebook Page*

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Living in hope

Romans 5:1-11
Results of Justification
​Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit

I didn't intend to - but once the Polls closed on Thursday night, I found myself sitting in front of the Television, just to see the first few results declared.
But the first few Scottish results were so surprising that, I decided to wait for a few more and, before I knew it, it was 4am.
Knowing that Friday was going to be a busy day, I forced myself to go to bed. 
It was an amazing night in Scottish politics.
A night in which it was so easy to be swept up in the joy  - or despair - of politicians and electorate alike. 
While I was watching the results come in on TV, I was also monitoring my Facebook feed (I'm a woman, I'm good at multi-tasking!) and it was fun to see all the different comments and reactions, liberally peppered with the usual Scottish black humour.
Indeed, over the weekend there have been a huge number of jokes made about the changed face of Scottish and UK politics - that's just how we Scots cope with change and uncertainty:
When I posted on Facebook, yesterday  that I was visiting the Kelpies, a friend, quick as a flash, commented that there were more Kelpies in Scotland than there were Labour MPs.

But, after my late night/early morning on Thursday into Friday, in the cold light of day, I was reflecting on what the massive political change might mean, not just for Scotland but for the whole of the UK.
And one of the first things that struck me was how, in just a few hours, life had changed dramatically for lots of people - not least those MPs who had worked tirelessly for the constituencies they served and who, at any other time, might reasonably have expected to remain in place, but, this week, lost their jobs and all that goes with that.
I went to bed in the wee small hours on Friday, thinking that history had been made in Scotland.
But, waking up a few hours later, I began to realise what a fragile place it is to be - at the beginning of a new era, where the landscape seems to have shifted, where there is more uncertainty than anything else.
And where, above all, there is a lot of hard work to be done before we can forge the way ahead.
It's a tall order to fulfil all the promises made in the run up to the election.
And that work requires everyone.
It requires the elated, the devastated, the indifferent.
It needs all of us to be involved in shaping the future.
Delivering promises calls for courage and compassion, for patience and persistence, and, above all, for hope.
Hope that, together, we can create societies that care for the poor and vulnerable.
Hope that, together, we can deliver on the stuff that makes up manifestos and election promises.
Hope that, together, folk will work across party lines to make a difference in communities divided.
So, on this post election Sunday, I want to ask:
What gives you hope?

Last week, we looked at Paul's introduction to his letter to the Romans.
We noticed how he set out his stall.
He declared his credentials as a follower of Christ.
Paul had to do that because he was known to many as a persecutor of Christians.
So he had to work hard to convince people he had changed.
And I'm sure his words weren't enough.
I'm sure folk were waiting to see if his words tied up with his actions.
A bit like we are doing in this post election time.
Waiting to see if people can change.
Waiting to see if promises will be fulfilled.
If the actions match up to the words, the many words that have been spoken in the last wee while.
Right now, we are living in hope.

Our reading this morning speaks of hope - we read:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

What gives us hope?
Paul, in his letter to the Romans, describes hope as something in which we can boast, something that does not disappoint.
There will always be pedlars of false hope, hope that is not realistic and cannot be sustained in the face of adversity.
The kind of hope of which Paul speaks, however, arises out of adversity.
The kind of hope of which Paul speaks is a response to suffering, a radical response that consists not in our gritting our teeth and willing all things to be well but in our enduring hardship in the faith that suffering will not have the last word.
The hope that, at the end of all things, God is.
I was intrigued to find a statement about hope from Vaclav Havel, former president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic.
Havel was frequently imprisoned as he fought against the effects of Communism.
But here is what he said about hope;
"Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Either we have hope or we don't; it is a dimension of the soul, and it's not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. ..(Hope)is an orientation of the spirit, and orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons ...Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed... Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out."
Vaclav Havel Disturbing the Peace

Isn't that the kind of hope that we need today?
People of all political persuasions have to be convinced to work together to create just communities, no matter how unlikely to succeed that task might seem. 
Because it is right. 
Because it makes sense.
That is hope.
And, however optimistic or pessimistic we are feeling in this changed political landscape, hope drives us to work together to build robust communities with care and compassion.
Communities where all know that they are valued, where all feel that their contribution matters, where strangers are welcomed and the poor and the vulnerable are not just cared for but enabled to break free from all that keeps them imprisoned.
Our task, our calling is to work toward those goals not because we are sure of success but because we know that it is the right thing to do.
That is hope.

It is well documented that when humans can summon hope, life takes on meaning and purpose.
Just as there is something life giving in the human ability to dredge up hope in every circumstance, however bleak, the hope of obtaining the gift of being reconciled to God is also life giving and life enhancing.
Paul, throughout his letter to the Romans stresses this point again and again, especially in Romans 8, when he reminds us that absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God which is ours in Christ Jesus our Lord. 
All of life takes its meaning from the underpinning love of God.
Hope in that gift of love cannot fail to make a difference whatever else happens in life.
And so we ask ourselves again this morning, in the light of all the changes wrought this week:
What gives us hope?

Let me share with you a reflection, written long before I knew that, on this post-election Sunday, I'd be preaching on Paul's message of hope:

For what do you hope?
For what do you hope?
Is it some future event?
Something that can be planned, researched, engineered or financed?
Like a cure for cancer?
Or a way of regenerating brain cells destroyed in dementia?
Or marvellous DNA repairs for confused chromosomes?
For what do you hope?
Is it some notion that tomorrow will be better?
That the benefits system will serve those in need?
Or that Food Banks will no longer be necessary?
That no one will sleep rough on our streets but that all will know shelter?
For what do you hope?
Is it for signs of world peace?
The dismantling of refugee camps?
The sharing of clean water?
For what do you hope?
The promise of God
for God’s people everywhere
is to know peace in every situation
because we are loved by the God whose name is love
and who, in Christ has already gathered us up in love.
Now that is something for which to hope.
And a hope that will not disappoint.

Thanks be to God.