Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Springtime and Easter

Spring morning sunshine over the Kyle of Tongue
Easter is one of those bitter-sweet celebrations that makes it difficult to fully appreciate. There is joy, but also tragedy. There is victory, but at an awful cost. There is life, but death comes first.

Although Spring arrives later in Sutherland than it does in more southerly parts of Britain, the green shoots of Spring are finally well and truly visible. The early morning sunshine now shines above Meall nan Clach Ruadha, down onto the village of Tongue, instead of hiding behind the hill until halfway through the morning. The snowdrops and crocuses are long gone and the earliest daffodils are now beginning to shrivel under the brightening skies.

Yesterday, the morning sunshine was brightening up the Moine peatlands across the mirror-like Kyle of Tongue, reflecting back to us upside-down across the still clear water, along with the puffy white clouds in the clear blue sky. Today, down in the village, we saw the Horse Chestnut trees in full bloom. The leaves on the trees are bursting forth. St Andrew's church, down the hill from the manse, is beginning to disappear as the intervening trees green up in preparation for the summer sunshine.

The countryside is alive with birdsong, and before long the acrobatic swallows will be back in town! We have already seen the bats fluttering and diving around the manse in the evening skies. Even the tourists are beginning to re-appear, in their motorhomes, or sport cars, or on their motorbikes, or even bicycles!

Spring-time is a time of new life. And so is Easter. Those parts of our lives which we thought God could never reach, are suddenly breathed into life by his tender love. Hurts are healed, wounds are washed, scars are softened, disabilities are dissolved, and we are made whole.

Yet our human bodies do not survive for ever. There comes a day for all of us when the sands of time are exhausted and we reach the end of our days. In this past week one of our number has gone to meet his Maker. Today we celebrated his life, and renewed the bonds of family love which bind us together in love. We have opened ourselves to the loving comfort of God's Holy Spirit, and we have thanked Him for the man we once knew.

Jesus shows us the way to God. As He said Himself, He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. We cannot stand far off and model our lives on His life. Only in His company, in His presence, and with His Spirit, can we follow Him and journey with Him, through the valleys of life and death, until we come to his Home where Our Father awaits us. Will you travel with Him and enter in?

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Sliding Around!

March Snow in Tongue, with Ben Hope in the distance
The weather people had been forecasting snow, but after the early evening flurry melted away yesterday, I figured it would all come to nothing.

However, when I heard some weather battering off the window in the night I wondered if there might be snow on the ground in the morning, despite my scepticism. Indeed there was, and the photo above shows the scene that met my eyes when I looked out of my front door.

On Sunday afternoon we had had a discussion about whether I could pack away my thermals until next winter. I and some others had thought 'Yes', but my wife was not alone in being right - again! - in thinking 'No'! And today I proved her right by adding that extra layer under my jeans!

There were some massive showers during the morning, but in the afternoon the showers came less often and the sun has melted most of the low-level snow away. Above about 500 feet though, the snow is still lying. Ben Hope, which looms over Tongue at a mighty 3041 feet (927m), is getting very white again. It had almost melted clear during the warmer weather of the last few weeks.

Just when we all thought that we would be on secure ground until next Winter, the rug is pulled from under our feet and we are slip sliding about again.

I suspect that's what the man who built his house on the sand thought (Matthew 7:26). Everything looked great during the dry weather. But when the rain came down, and the floods rose up, it went spectacularly wrong, and the house fell down with a great crash.

The world's banks have gone through a similar calamity in the past few years. And I don't think they have learned their lessons yet. The problem is not just limited to the banks, but to the global economy, which only thinks it is doing well when the economy is growing. The present structure of our world economy cannot cope with a static situation.

But the World is nearly full up. We cannot continue growing our populations forever. Climate change is going to give us major problems ahead. I think it is more likely the global population will shrink over the next 100 years, rather than continue its meteoric rise of the past 100 years. We must re-evaluate the stability of our economic assumptions. We cannot expect to borrow today and pay it back tomorrow. Each one of us must start living within our means.

The church too is slip sliding about. The foundations we thought were secure have become unstable. Mighty buildings, filled with rows of pews, with a giant pulpit and table at the front, no longer result in the people pouring through the doors.

Preaching the Good News inside the building won't draw anyone in from the outside, unless the people inside become able to preach the message themselves, outside, in their everyday conversations - amongst family, friends, neighbours, and work colleagues.

This means that our church pulpits should be used for teaching and encouraging the people in the pews to do the preaching, instead of the preaching being done by the minister (or pastor or priest).

Relationship with Jesus is the true solid foundation of the church. Lift Him up and all people will be drawn to Him. If people are not being drawn to us, then we are lifting up the wrong thing.

Jesus is the light of the World. He will fill your hearts with joy. In the Father's house there is eternal life. Jesus has prepared a place for you. He is standing at the door waiting to welcome you in.

Don't slip up on your journey through life. But if that's what happens, you can depend on Jesus to give you a helping hand. If you're having troubling finding Jesus, then ask someone from the church to help you!

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Golfing - a Round

Durness Golf Club 2nd & 11th tees

Last Monday was a day off for me, and it was a good day to be off work. The sun was blazing down from a cloudless sky and the wind was not too strong. My wife and I decided it was a good day for a visit to Durness, to walk on the beach and play a round of golf. Well, after a short walk together on the beach, I would be playing golf, while my wife enjoyed a solo walk on one of the local walking routes!

The photo above is of the second tee and the eleventh tee at the Durness Golf Club. On every other golf course I have played, each tee has its associated green. You play from tee to green. But on this course, there are only 9 greens, shared between the 18 tees! It must get rather chaotic when the course is busy! Normally I only play 9 holes, the front nine, or the back nine. Maybe once the summer comes I'll play both halves of the course!

Durness Golf Club 5th hole

The course is rugged, although not as mountainous as Lothianburn Golf Club just to the South of Edinburgh where I used to be a member. That course has 500 feet of height between the nearest and farthest parts of the course! At Durness the main challenges are the narrow fairways, the rough, the wind, and the rabbits. I'm sure that the ball I lost went down a rabbit hole!

The 5th hole above is a long hole down the hillside, with a large knoll 3/4 of the way along the fairway which stops your ball running on down towards the green. It was the first hole of the round where I managed to hit the green in regulation - 2 shots for this par 4. Unfortunately I didn't manage to get down in 2 for my par, but a 5 was good, and 2 better than each of the the first four holes!

Durness Golf Club 6th hole

The 6th hole is a great challenge and usually a very beautiful scene. The green is on the far side of Loch Lanlish, in the centre of the far shore. The loch is too big to hit across. You have to go round it, on the left side. As if the loch wasn't enough, there are two more water hazards cunningly placed to catch the unwary golfer! My second was a dribbler, but I was pleased my 8 iron approach shot flew through the air to land close beside the green. If it had fallen short it would have made a big splash! A six for that hole, and 5 for the short par 3 which follows it. The sun was so low that I only caught a glimpse of the ball flying low before I was dazzled by the sun and lost sight of the ball. I did find it but it was in the rough and my next two shots were, only just avoiding the greenside bunker. Down in two after that though! And another 7 on the 8th as my approach shot dropped short into the greenside bunker.

The last hole, pictured below is my favourite! It's a short par 3, between 100 and 150 yards depending on whether you are playing from the 9th or the 18th tee! When the tide is in, with the waves crashing in from the sea, it's a fearsome prospect. And it's not much better when the tide is out, leaving a yawning chasm from tee to green! My 7 iron flew true and the ball landed perfectly in the centre of the green rolling on towards the flag. Two putts and that was me down for my first par of the round. Yippee! I decided not to play any more holes, and headed up to the club house, on the right of the photo below.

Durness Golf Club 9th hole

Before meeting up again with my wife, I was surprised to see two surfers practicing their art on the beach at Durness. It was just the last day of February, and they looked like a couple of giant penguins togged up in their wetsuits! Perhaps like me it was their first outing of the year!

My wife had enjoyed her walk as much as I had enjoyed my golf. We relaxed and chatted as we drove gently Eastwards along the North coast, and then South and North around the shores of Loch Eriboll, until we completed the 28 mile drive back to our home in Tongue. A splendid outing!

Monday, 21 February 2011

Cycling Around

Looking South & East across the Kyle of Tongue to Ben Loyal
Today my wife and I cycled the thirteen miles around the Kyle of Tongue. The wind was rather cool but at least it was blowing us along as we headed Northward along the Western shore.

We began from our home in the picturesque village of Tongue. We cycled past the grand Tongue Hotel and then the cosy Ben Loyal Hotel before passing the Post Office and Police house. We continued South out of the village and down the hill to the scattered community of Rhian. After crossing the Rhian Burn we continued passed Ribigill Farm and up the steep hill to Lochan na Cuilce and Lochan Hakel or Hakon.

After a few more twists and turns the single-track road begins the descent down to Kinloch River. It gets pretty steep on this side too and both brakes were needed to avoid going round the gravelly corners too fast!

Once over the bridge we passed the entrance to Kinloch Lodge where the road turns sharply to the right. There is a road sign here warning users that beyond this point there is no gritting or snow clearance. Proceed at your own risk! We proceeded!

After passing through a stand of gnarled Silver Birch trees we came upon the boarded up Kinloch House. It seems a shame that such a fine house is no longer used. We continued along the road keeping our eyes open for the the ruins of Dun na Maigh, an old iron-age broch. But yet again we did not see it. Next time we will bring the guide book!

After crossing another bridge we took a wee detour left to see if this would lead to the Moine Path, which skirts to the North of Ben Hope before dropping down to the South end of Lochan Hope. The map says that it does but a shallow Ford dissuaded us from further exploration. We returned to the bridge and headed North beside the Kyle.

There is not much to see beside the road, but the steep rocky cliffs across the Kyle are worth the trip. Eventually we see Castle Varrich standing on the headland across the water and shortly after that the houses of Tongue can be seen too.

Tongue across the Kyle
Looking Eastward across the Kyle towards the village of Tongue with Castle Varrich on the skyline at the right.

Northward view of the Kyle of Tongue and Causeway
Looking Northward up the Kyle towards the bridge and causeway.

At the North end of the road we came to the main road between Thurso and Durness. Turning right we soon reached the bridge across the Kyle. The tide was an hour or two passed high water and I had never seen the water flowing out so fast. It was like a river rapid!

Ebbing tide under Kyle of Tongue bridge
The ebbing tide running fast under the Kyle of Tongue bridge.

Once across the causeway, passed Tongue Lodge which is a Youth Hostel from Easter to Autumn, the road climbs back up to Tongue. We passed the historic kirk of St. Andrews, dating from 1680, round the hairpin bend, and up the last 100 yards to the house again. Ready for a cuppa!

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Solar Storm

The world exists in a permanent condition of being 8 minutes away from annihilation. That is how long it takes light and other electromagnetic energies to travel from our nearest star, the Sun, to travel to Earth. If the Sun were to explode then we would first know about it 8 minutes after it happened.

I don't want you to be alarmed! The sun is in a continuous state of explosion, as this enormous ball of super-hot and super-dense Hydrogen gas, is crushed together by it's own mass and the force of gravity. Tiny Hydrogen atoms fuse together into Helium atoms, which are four times the mass. Enormous quantities of energy are released in this process, and these keep the Sun hot, and our Earth warm.

The Solar reaction is gradually slowing down as the Hydrogen fuel is consumed and turned into Helium. But it won't run out any time soon. It will be millions of years before that happens.

The Sun's activity appears to be cyclical, on an eleven-year cycle, and some longer cycles too. In recent time the Sun has passed its eleven-year minimum, and activity levels are increasing. The number of sunspots is growing, and the solar flares are occurring more often.

Several flares, or Coronal Mass Ejections, to give them their scientific name, occurred earlier this week. Huge quantities of the Sun's outer atmosphere of superheated gases are ejected at high velocity away from the Sun. This week's flares have headed in our direction.

The Northern Lights are likely to be visible over the next few nights. You may even have seen them already if the sky has been clear. The energetic charged atoms are deflected by the Earth's magnetic field. They get sucked into the North or South polar skies and when they hit the Earth's atmosphere they create beautiful and mysterious patterns of light high in the night sky.

We humans like to think we have everything under control. Our sophisticated electronic technology allows to find out almost anything we want, from almost anywhere in the world. We can speak to our friends at a moment's notice even if they are on the other side of the planet.

But Solar Storms such as the one this week can seriously disrupt satellite communications, and other radio communications such as mobile and cordless phones. Even high voltage systems such as the National Grid can be degraded by Solar Storms.

Our human activities take place in a very fragile environment, where the temperature and climate, are within very narrow limits.

Jesus Christ came to bring the Good News that we can depend utterly upon the love and power of God. God cares about each human person. He cares enough about us to allow us to choose whether we even believe in Him. He invites us to talk with Him, and follow his leadings and guidings. His decisions can seem strange, mysterious, and even perverse, according to our understandings. But what we believe does not change who He is.

In the storms of life, as well in the sunny days, put your trust in Jesus Christ. He will never let you down.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Spring already?

Solitary snowdrop at the front of the Manse in Tongue
It is hard to believe that it is already the middle of February. I nearly missed St. Valentine's Day, although my wife reminded me!

Life has been busy here. During the second half of January I attended a Presbytery training day at Dornoch, a friend's ordination in Glasgow (which was great!), a training day on prayer and prophecy in Lairg, and a church consultation in Inverness.

We also finished the Alpha Course, which we have been helping with since October, and we had our second all-age activity service at the end of the month.

A couple of weeks ago we had a big storm, which roared around the house through the night. In the morning one of the ridge tiles had come off the roof, but it was quickly replaced. I was astonished to discover that the windows were all coated in salt spray - and the house is 200 feet above sea level, and 750metres (about half a mile) from the seashore of the Kyle of Tongue. The wind has an awesome power. But the power of God's Holy Spirit is even more awesome!

February has been a little quieter, although we began it with the funeral of one of our older members. She had friends and family all over Scotland, and the Melness Church was full to overflowing. There must have been about 250 people there. The Free Church minister for this area was sharing in the service too, and it was good for folk to see us on the same platform together. It was the first time we had met each other, so it was a good opportunity for us to see each other in action!

This week we will journey with six folk through the basics of Christian faith and church life. I am pleased they have taken this opportunity to explore what is involved in becoming, and remaining!, members of the Church of Scotland. We look forward to welcoming them into full membership of the church of Jesus Christ in this place.

During this past week we have discovered some snowdrops growing in the manse garden. The snowdrop in the photo above is today's discovery, and it seems to be struggling to flourish. Perhaps the strimmer has been applied too diligently in the past. Or maybe its position at the front of the house leaves it too exposed to the wintry blasts that can sweep across the house even at this time of year. Spring may be in sight, but it is not here yet!

It almost miraculous that these beautiful plants remain hidden under the ground, and yet when the time and conditions are right they burst forth and surprise us with their exquisite beauty.

It seems to me like a metaphor for the workings of God through his people, the Church. It seems like there is no life, that nothing is happening, that the future is hopeless. But just when we least expect it, the new life appears, springs into sight, and bursts forth into bloom.

Jesus told a story about a man who went to sow his field. The seed which fell on good ground yielded as much as a hundred new seeds. God is calling each one of us in his Church to be fruitful and to prepare for harvest. (Luke chapter 8:5-15)

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Happy New Year!

Snowy Ben Hope
It's been a busy time of year for me during the past few weeks. The snow caused a fair amount of disruption here in Melness and Tongue. So I've had even less time than usual for keeping you all up-to-date.

Our three children, and my Mum, all arrived for Christmas a few days before Christmas. Their first day here was filled with wall-to-wall sunshine. Mum and I enjoyed a short walk across the Rhian Burn and on towards Varrich Castle.

Just before we set off, from the front door of the manse, I snapped the above photo of Ben Hope, which I think is my favourite winter photo so far! Blue sky, thick snow, and the sun glistening off the snowy branches in the foreground.

Frozen Rhian Burn

The air was very cold and crisp, and the snow was firm and crunchy. It was easy to walk on, although I nearly went on my neck at one point where the snow had fallen on ice underneath!

When we got down to the river it was very noisy. Not the usual tinkling of water, but the sharp cracking and snapping of the ice sheet which had built up overnight.

The tide had been in during the bitterly cold night, and the air was very still. There were no waves coming up-river from the Kyle of Tongue, and the surface of the river had frozen hard with an inch-thick layer of ice.

As we arrived at the river, the tide was going out. The ice sheets had dropped onto the rocks in the river bed, and it was snapping and cracking as the water removed its support.

As you can see in the photo above, the river bed is a chaotic jumble of broken ice slabs, tipped at crazy angles, and shining on the low winter sunshine.

When we returned back to the bridge across the river on our way home, it was just two minutes after noon, on the day after the Winter Solstice. The sun was very low in the sky, shining over the rugged peaks of Ben Loyal, that Queen of Scottish Mountains. The sunlight was reflecting off the water in the river, the broken ice slabs, and the snow on the mountains and bushes. It was a glorious scene, and I am pleased I was able to capture it, and share it with you in the photo below.

Mid-winter Sun

As I write this post, it is more than two weeks after the Solstice. Sunset has already retreated half-an-hour later in the afternoon, and we are well into the New Year. I wonder what lies ahead in our journey with Jesus.

I have been thinking about our worship services. It is nice that we have a pattern to them. Hymn, Prayer, Talk, Hymn, Readings, Hymn, Sermon, Hymn, Prayer, Hymn. It makes our services predictable for the people who usually attend. It gives me a framework around which to weave the message for this week.

But it occurs to me that our Sunday services are not at all the way that Jesus spent his time with his disciples.

Jesus did attend the synagogue regularly. He read the readings sometimes, and when he did, he gave the message. But on one occasion someone asked Jesus to heal him, in the synagogue, on the Sabbath, and Jesus did just that, and he was chucked out.

Jesus spent most of his time, meeting with people, in groups, usually in the public places, but sometimes in their homes. He introduced people to the awesome, loving, power of the God who created the universe, his Father. Travelling with Jesus was exciting, unpredictable, and there was no hiding place. People met with God, who knew their deepest needs, and satisfied them.

I wonder if the framework of our Sunday services is too much like a fence between us and God. The framework keeps us from getting so near to God that He might speak to us or even touch us. We can hang around the fringes, without any risk that we might have to speak or even do something. God is awesome and majestic, and if we don't know the depth of his love, then we might feel afraid of Him.

When we journey along the road of life we don't know what lies around the next corner. If we are keeping close to Jesus, the one who knows the way ahead, then we can travel securely, safe in the knowledge that we are loved and cared for.

I think that we will be dismantling the fence, and coming closer to God, in the weeks that lie ahead.