I was 7 years old when I first walked into this St James building to be enrolled as a Cub Scout – I sat as part of a circle just here, and the opening ceremony was the grand howl “Akela, we’ll do our best, to do our duty to God and the Queen, and to keep the Cub Scout law”. These were the first child like words of faith I remember.
Little did I know that 66 years on I would still be here. I had no idea where life was going to take me and where my journey as a Christian and my ministry would lead.
So, I invite you today to join me in a reflection on my story and journey, perhaps as a precursor to a reflection on where your own Christian journey is taking you.
Phase 1 of my life and ministry, if I can call it that, lasted till my early twenties. I was born in Leith to poor manual working class parents – no TV, no car, no inside toilet. Aged 11, I failed the school ‘qualifying exam’, which separated the educational sheep from the goats, and was sent to a 3-year school where you could not take O grades or Higher Grades. I left school with no qualifications.
At 15 my mother found me a job as an apprentice draughtsman in Henry Robb’s shipyard now covered by Ocean Terminal. That says something of the role of mothers in that time! That led me to work in various drawing offices till my mid-20s, designing radar for fighter planes, town planning in Edinburgh and finally designing sewage works.
Parallel to working life was my life here at St James helping to run the Scout Troop, an Open Youth Club and a Youth Fellowship. I learned many skills including being treasurer for the youth club tuck shop, a role that seems to have stayed with me! I learned to speak in public here and Christian fellowship was undoubtedly the most important influence on my life. I met Christine here, married here, grew our three sons here and stayed here! Looking back, I see, even at this early stage of my life, God’s hand in training me for a ministry.
Our Curate at the time, Colin Chapman, had a major influence on my life challenging me to assess for myself the evidence for the Christian faith by reading the New Testament, which I did, reading it like a novel. This is the NT I read and it was undoubtedly the foundation of the person I was to become. Colin Chapman espoused the importance of critical thinking – using our brain to assess the evidence for faith. Reading this convinced me of the truth of the Christian faith.
Colin Chapman mounted a major event in 1967 here in this hall called “Christianity on Trial” where I was cast as the defence attorney. A real judge presided at the trial. The place was packed with about 150 people. Having almost no history of speaking in public I was terrified, and I remember asking God to give me the words to speak – the moment if you like when my intellectual certainty turned into faith and trust.
The material that Colin Chapman wrote to use with young people of faith and no faith became this set of materials as he challenged us to think about the evidence for faith, and not just to have blind faith. It later became this book written by Colin based on material he had used with us young people here at St James. The experience developed in me a voracious appetite for Christian books and I read perhaps 70-80 Christian books in two years, and that, seemed to open my mind.
It’s interesting for me today hearing the theological views of others. I would still characterize mine as Evangelical, without pretending that I can explain the contradictions we often face. But, I’ve learned over the years that you can hold firm to fundamental beliefs based, as mine are, on my early positive assessment of the validity of a Biblical faith. But, parallel to our faith continually changing ourselves as we translate our belief into the way we live our lives and relate to other people, with the gentleness and servant like ministry that Jesus demonstrated.
Parallel to my development in St James, when I was increasingly bored with paid work and sensing I could do more, God spoke to me. It was nothing dramatic. I was walking with Colin Chapman on Calton Hill. He knew I was wondering what to do with my life and suggested I become a teacher – a suggestion I thought was very funny since I did not have any qualifications to go to University. But, that suggestion led on to the next big phase in my life.
Phase 2 of my life and ministry was my path into teaching. I had considered a 2-year course at Bible College for Christian Ministry and a 2-year Youth & Community course as the only way I could move forward without qualifications. Neither seemed right for me. So, I studied Higher English at night school and miraculously passed this and other Higher Subjects with good grades.
At University I studied economics and economic history, and true to Colin Chapman’s suggestion I became a teacher. I loved teaching! My first job in a Roman Catholic school took me past a light stained glass window each morning with words from St Augustine “Our heart is restless until it finds its rest in God” a saying I still believe to be profoundly true. I soon became a head of department and later Head Teacher of Ainslie Park High School in Pilton and later James Gillespie’s.
Being a Christian and a teacher were not always easy. There were many good people but few overtly Christian and those who were often had a religious harshness I found difficult; I had always declared my Christian faith when applying for jobs and God seemed to take me at my word. I was appointed to manage a school Annexe with sole responsibility for 500 1st and 2nd year pupils. The Head Teacher, a fine Christian Brethren man who was highly respected by staff, made it clear he expected me to lead assemblies each week which were basically 40 minute services with hymns, prayers and a sermon which I had to prepare and deliver to 250 twelve-year-old children! That was some learning experience! Few pupils or staff were church goers. I learned to deal with the complexity of human relationships and beliefs, or lack of.
It was clear some staff fundamentally disagreed with the Christian position even in a school setting where we had a legal obligation to provide worship. I learned if my faith was to mean anything I had to demonstrate in my professional life, as well as my words, Christian attributes: a commitment to values; compassion; honesty, openness; integrity; a commitment to equality and justice and to the most marginalised children in the school system.
I learned to demonstrate my faith through simple actions, such as holding the door open for a child coming along the corridor behind me, recognizing them as equal human beings, even if under my authority. My ministry in teaching led me into promoting the value of human relationships and emotional intelligence strategies in Edinburgh schools; chairing Edinburgh secondary school head teachers to work together for the good of children and in my retiring years to work training senior teachers about the importance of human relationships good education.
Phase 3 of my life and ministry leads me up to the present day.
My very first sermon in St James, when I was licensed as Lay Reader in 1973, was from Genesis 6: God’s call to Noah to build a boat, leave his current life behind, and set off on a journey into the unknown. Noah was very old at the time, and I remember the key point of the sermon, with me aged 30, was that no matter how old you were God had a role for you to play. I still believe that, but here I am, nailed by my own sermon in 1973! What ministry does someone of my age have?
Christine has developed her own ministry of, amongst other things, sending birthday cards to children of St James to make them feel part of that family. I was led into a post retiral ministry for 6/7 years of training senior teachers conveying something of my passion for caring for children, integrity and values. I’ve been allowed time as I get older to serve here at St James in various roles in buildings and public ministry and as I mentioned earlier, my early training as treasurer of the youth club tuck shop seems to have marked me a role for life.
Well, I’m still a lot younger than Noah was. I have no sense that I can retire from the ministry that has been my life. I wait with bated breath, if with some trepidation, on where God might lead me in my future life and ministry. I follow in the footsteps of the saints I have known here at St James: folk like Alex Sutherland a butcher who later became a non-stipendiary minister; Bill Murray an engineer who ministered by looking after our buildings; Cynthia Renilson who had a ministry of caring and cleaning in our church. All ordinary practical folk.
I pray that my words today may help you to reflect on your own ministry and where God is calling you to minister his Grace in the future.