Gary's Pastoral Letter for February
As someone who had a Scottish grandparent on both sides of the family, it may not sound surprising to say that I have an almost inbred love of Scotland. Even the simple decor in our lounge betrays a Scottish influence.
Last week Burns Night was celebrated all over the world among those proud of their Caledonian heritage. Debbie and I have enjoyed such gatherings over the years, and haggis, neaps and tatties are always the customary order of the day. I love everything surrounding the custom, not just the meal itself but the whole atmosphere and ambience it invariably promotes. The “great chieftain of the pudding race” has, thanks to Robert Burns, provided us with a custom which continues to this day, and I for one am pleased about that. This observance can be coupled with another one of Burns’ creative influences with the singing of Auld Lang Syne, which must surely be one of the most universally sung pieces of music ever penned.
All this may cause us to ask about our particular religious customs. There was a time when getting dressed in one’s Sunday best and attending chapel three times on Sunday was the norm. Another firmly embedded family custom was that Sunday was seen as the day when nearly all other normal pastimes were considered inappropriate for religious reasons. I think the Scottish denominations promoted this strict code of practice more so than others, and although many of us may not want to return to the traditions of an earlier generation it has to be acknowledged that there has been a huge change to the traditional British Sunday. We may put this down to secularism, commercialism or simply convenience which enables families to spend more time together doing what matters to them. However, the best test regarding the relevance of our religious customs and practices is to ask whether they enhance life. For example, do they bring us closer to God and to one another? Do they foster friendship, fellowship and a sense of belonging? Do they enable us to contribute to the whole good of the church family, thereby helping us to offer something of ourselves and our own particular gifts and graces? Do they help us to live better lives in our homes, our communities and out in the wider world? Jesus regularly attended public worship, because that was the custom of the culture in which He lived. He never, however, saw it as an end in itself. He attended worship because he knew that in God, we live and move and have our being. Jesus knew that God was the source of all life, and His mission was to reveal the name and nature of God in all its fullness. Recognising God as the one worthy of our highest praise and honour, our loyalty and service, and indeed the whole of our lives is surely the most important thing we do together. I believe our worship is meant to be both personal and pragmatic. It is personal because every one of us is a precious child of God, and it is pragmatic because it calls us to look beyond ourselves to the needs of others, to go out and live in a bigger world than one which may just focus on our own needs. No doubt there are those in life who will look upon our religious customs and practices with a degree of cynicism or amusement, but if they help us along the road to becoming the person God wants us to be and to do the things he wants us to do then surely that is all that matters in the end.