It’s always the innocent who suffer most

For the first half of the 20th century, present-day Sudan was a colony of the British Empire. Sudan achieved independence from Britain in 1956 but civil war was already brewing between the north and the south. Part of the problem is the clash of cultures, religions and ethnicities of sub-Saharan Africa with those of the Arab Islamic world. Since 1956 there have been only 11 years of peace and so more than 50 years of civil war at one level or another. 

Sudan is the largest country in Africa and borders nine other countries, including Egypt, Chad, Kenya and Ethiopia. The capital of Sudan, Khartoum, sits where the White Nile and the Blue Nile join together to form the Nile which flows north to Egypt and into the Mediterranean. Now Sudan has a population estimated to be about 40 million, of which 52 percent of which are African, and 40 percent Arab. Over two thirds of the population is Muslim while Animists and Christians, who for the most part live in southern Sudan, account for a third. Arabic is the official language, and the government has attempted to impose Islamic sharia law on the whole country since 1983, which led to Sudan’s longest civil war, from 1983 to 2005 and involved not just southern Sudan but the people of the Nuba mountains, Blue Nile and eastern Sudan as well, and the peace agreement in 2005 left those other conflicts unresolved.

The Darfur conflict erupted 20 year ago in April 2003 when the Sudan Liberation Movement attacked Sudanese military forces at the al-Fashir airport in North Darfur. In the years that followed, hundreds of thousands of people were killed, and millions more displaced in the war between rebel forces and the military.

Recently our news media have been awash with the rapid escalation in violence in Sudan. Intense clashes between Sudan’s military and the country’s main paramilitary force have killed hundreds of people and sent thousands fleeing for safety, and this latest civil war threatens to destabilise the wider region.

There is currently a power struggle between the two main factions of the military. The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), broadly loyal to Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the country’s de facto ruler, are pitted against the paramilitaries of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a collection of militia who follow a former warlord Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti.

As well as a tussle for power, at the root of much of the conflict are the economic and political disparities in the regions, and since no government, civilian or military, has seriously addressed these, it was only a matter of time before the violence in specific regions like Darfur expanded to engulf the centre and has led to the rapid exodus from Khartoum and ordinary people try to escape the fighting.

For civilians in Sudan at the moment, simply holding on to hope is a huge challenge. Those stepping out of their front doors don’t know whether they’ll return alive. As Christian’s we need to pray for the safety of those living in fear. We need to pray for justice and healing, and for an outcome that doesn’t open the way to more radicalisation and tension. And we need to pray that the Sudanese people may in due course be ruled by a government that respects human rights, freedom of worship, equality and dignity for all of whatever race or religion.

Driving the long desert road in Southern Egypt towards the Sudanese border in 2004


Engaging with Christ’s Passion

Festividad de San José – Triana

As many of you know, Anna and I have just returned from a break in Andalusia in southern Spain. We arrived in Triana, a small village in the hills, on the day that they were celebrating the Festividad de San José (the festival of St Joseph) sensibly transferred to Saturday so that everyone could enjoy a good party then a four hour procession and then another party (all this of course after starting with a Festal Mass at 12 noon).

According to those in the know, there are such events regularly in towns and villages around the region mark particular saints’ days but of course everywhere has a full programme of events to mark Semana Santa (Holy Week). In Velez-Malaga (the nearest large town to where we were) the celebration of Semana Santa is recognised as one of the most impressive in the whole of Spain.

Along with everything you would expect of a fiesta (including amazing food and drink), there are processions, much like the one we witnessed in Triana, which become ever more grand throughout the week – starting on Palm Sunday and culminating with the Resurrection procession on Easter Day. The processions are accompanied by bands with crowds carrying candles. There are also huge floats (tronos) weighing up to 5,000kg, carried by large numbers of people, that depict scenes from the events in the week leading to Christ’s death and Resurrection.

Good Friday trono – Malaga

From time to time the crowd are become silence and the procession pauses while a saeta is sung. A saeta is an acoustic religious song (often in Flamenco style) sung from a balcony accompanied by wonderful guitar playing. After the saeta, the band start up again and theprocession moves forward. These processions seem to be able to blend celebration with sombre reflection and at the same time are also incredibly beautiful and moving.

This year along with other local churches we are once again holding a Walk of Witness from Kincardine Church in Ardgay to Creich Church in Bonar Bridge. There will be no huge tronos (just a rough wooden cross carried by one person), nor a band (just the voices of the pilgrims), but just like the people of Velez we will be marking the events of Christ’s last week, in Scripture, in prayer and in song (though maybe not in a flamenco style), as we pause from time to time along the road. When we arrive at Creich Church we will also be ‘partying’ with hot cross buns and coffee!! You are all of course welcome to join us and to bring your friends (we start at Kincardine Church in Ardgay at 10:15am).

Walk of Witness – Ardgay/Bonar

It is interesting to experience and reflect on how different cultures mark the milestones of our faith. We all start with the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and throughout Holy Week we engage with a number of important events as we reflect on our faith and on the life of Christ, before finally emerging blinking into the light of Easter. Although the Resurrection is a fundamental part of our Christian belief, there can be no Resurrection without all that precedes it, including of course the brutal execution. Conversely without the Resurrection, Jesus was just a good man who was unjustly put to death in a brutal, inhumane and horrendous manner – something that sadly happens daily around the world.

I would therefore encourage you all to engage with some of the events and services during Holy Week – Stations of the Cross in Dornoch on Monday or Tain on Wednesday, our service in Dornoch on Maundy Thursday with its reliving of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, sharing the last supper with them and then retiring to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray and our moving reading of the Passion from John’s Gospel in our service of Tenebrae or Walk of Witness on Good Friday all tell the story of what happens between Palm Sunday and Easter Day and help us to really understand what our faith is about.


procession costumes – Velez-Malaga

Who are you?

For the whole of March we are in Lent, when we should be reflecting on our relationship with God and each other and striving for spiritual growth and improving those relationships.

In his writings on Belovedness, Henri Nouwen asks each of us the question “Who is the person that lives this little life?” He then identifies three of the most common answers to the question “who are you?” These answers aren’t always explicit, but let’s examine what’s implied by them.

I am what I do” – I am my job, my role, my position. But when I retire or step down from a role or position, all that is lost and who I am becomes indeterminate, my very sense of myself is threatened.

I am what I have.” – I am my education or qualifications, my stuff, my relationships, my looks, my health. If any of what I have is lost or can’t be achieved then who I am is called into question, my very sense of myself is threatened.

I am what other people say about me.” – I am what other people think of me, say about me, respect in me admire in me. If others say good things about me, I feel good. If they say bad things, then I enter a dark place and my very sense of myself is threatened.

Anything familiar here? A response to “who am I” with “I am what I do”, “I am what I have” or “I am what other people say about me” is a response rooted in vice. In a nutshell these are the three temptations that Jesus faced in the wilderness. Turn stone into bread – define yourself by what you have. Jump off the pinnacle of the temple to wow the crowd – define yourself by what people say about you. Become the ruler of the world – define yourself by what you do. 

I am what I have” exposes us to the sin and vice of lust. It’s the desire for more and more. “I am what other people say about me” exposes us to the sin and vice of anger. It’s living with a high sensitivity to how others regard you, which leads to great inward and outward anger when others disregard or disrespect you. “I am what I do” exposes us to the sin and vice of pride. It’s the desire to be important, to have power over others. Nouwen points out that anger, pride and lust are the three vices that have been identified since the early church as the enemies of a spiritual life, barriers to experiencing and sharing the love of God.

So if I am not what I do, what I have or what people say about me, who am I? Here’s what Henri Nouwen says:

I come, Jesus says, to reveal to you who you truly are. And who are you? You are a child of God. You are the one who I call my child. You are my son, you are my daughter, you are my beloved.”

Henri Nouwen “Here and Now: Living in the Spirit”

We would all do well to remember that as we journey through Lent. 


Unity not Uniformity

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity ended on Wednesday. During the week, in many places, there were services where Christians from different denominations joined together to celebrate what they have in common, laying aside those things that divide them. Now, I’d be fairly certain that if any of us were to spell out the difference between our denomination and one of the others we’d make a reasonable job of describing the essential character of our own, but a less good job of the other. Such has been the case throughout Christian history. But these considerations don’t just apply to Christians or to religions, they apply whatever ‘groups’ or ‘tribes’ we belong to and the difference they have to other similar ‘groups’ or ‘tribes’.

Anna and I lived for 25 years in the West of Scotland, in Ayrshire, where sectarianism is still alive and well and where even today the chances of getting some jobs may depend on your denomination, which might be revealed simply by the name of the school you attended. But I’m not sure that sectarianism’s actually got anything to do with religion, with denomination or with belief. It’s more about prejudice and prejudice often arising from ignorance of the ‘others’.

What we seem to be missing in our increasingly polarised culture is a shared humanity. That person who you or I are yelling at (literally or metaphorically), who has a different political, social or religious opinion than us, they’re actually human too, and you or I are no better or worse than them.

When we can learn to admit that we’re not perfect, that we make mistakes all the time and that we constantly change and evolve our opinions and beliefs … then we can begin to have more compassion for ourselves and begin to see ourselves as someone that’s lovable and worthy of grace and compassion, even though we’re not perfect and not living up to our own ideals. At that point we begin to see others, with differing views or opinions, with that same grace and compassion, no matter how different they are or how many mistakes they’ve made. Why? Because we realise that they’re a person, just like us, with hopes and fears, struggling to do the best they can with the resources that they have, the situation that they find themselves in and what they believe to be true.

Irene Butter, who as a child survived not one, but two holocaust concentration camps, perfectly summarizes these ideas in a single sentence: “Enemies are people who’s story you haven’t heard, or who’s face you haven’t seen.” We need to remind ourselves of this whenever we come across another person who doesn’t see the world in exactly the same way that we do.

St Paul reminds us that human standards of judgment count for nothing in God’s eyes. The human standards that say for instance: that my way of being a Christian is better than your way, that my way of worship is better than yours. The scandal of the cross is that God chooses vulnerability, weakness, suffering, and death in order to bring new life. God places the greatest value on our service to others, even when service may mean suffering and rejection. In Christ we’re a new creation, even in (or perhaps because of) our weakness and vulnerability.

It great to hear people talking about unity, so long as they don’t mean simply that “we can all be united if you come over to my way of thinking”. That’s akin to my suggesting that the solution to Christian disunity is for them all to become Episcopalians – and you know what, I don’t think that would solve anything. We like most denominations can’t even agree amongst ourselves!

The key to the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is the word ‘Prayer’. Unity is something that we should fervently pray for, we might never achieve it, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try, remembering that Unity isn’t Uniformity!!


The light that darkness could not overcome

The 21st December was the shortest day and the longest night. Nature seems to have gone to sleep. The leaves have fallen off all but the most resolute of oak trees and the garden lacks life.

As early as the 2nd century, the Romans believed that the ‘Unconquered Sun’ would rise again and warm the earth and bring things back to life. Darkness and Light. Death and New Life. And they prayed to their god ‘Sol Invictus’ or ‘Helios’ if you prefer, that light would come again. It’s no accident that the Christian Church celebrates the birth of the ‘true light’ at the darkest time of the year. He is the light that darkness could not overcome.

There’ll always be a struggle between darkness and light.

We feel that at both a personal level and in the public world around us as well. Nowhere is this more graphically seen than in the destruction and war being waged in Ukraine, in parts of the Middle East and in parts of Africa. Bombs and bullets, terror and violence seem to be the only language being used in these parts of the world, including the lands of the Bible and the places that we hear about in the story of the Incarnation.

And, of course it’s the innocents who suffer and it always has been. 

Who could fail but be shocked by the sheer terror on the faces of children and families as homes and schools, hospitals and clinics and essential parts of the infrastructure of towns and cities are destroyed in ways calculated to instil fear, misery and suffering into the largest number of innocents? Whether these images come from from Aleppo or Mosul, from Gaza or Nablus, from Kiev or Kherson and so many other places whose names we either don’t know or can’t remember, as we watch on our TV screens or read our newspapers, we are appalled.

The story of the birth of Jesus resonates with the story of humanity at it’s darkest hour.

These verses of Malcolm Guite’s poem ‘Refugee’ puts it so well:

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font,
But he is with a million displaced people
On the long road of weariness and want.

For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road,
Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,
Glancing behind and shouldering their load.

Malcolm Guite “Refugee”

At this time of year, as Christians we hear and proclaim the universal message of the need for peace on earth. Peace isn’t just the absence of conflict and war. Each of us has some responsibility to create at least some of that peace in our own life and community, not least by working for a more just society and world.

These are the ‘hopes and fears’ we focus on at Christmas and as we remember the Holy Innocents.


The Season of Not-Knowing?

Are you someone who when you’re reading a book, tends to skip to the end to see what happens rather than sticking with the hero through thick and thin. When Andrew and Daniel were young, on long journeys they’d start asking if we were nearly there yet, before we were a couple of miles from home.

Part of the problem is a failure to be content with now. How much of your time do you spend thinking about the past? How much time do you spend worrying about or anticipating the future? How much time does that leave for living in the present?

The spiritual writer Anthony de Mello suggested in his writings that most of us spend far too much time anywhere but in the present. In Advent it’s so easy to think about Christmases past or to have already arrived at Christmas to come. C. S. Lewis wrote a story called “Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus” about a land in which there are two festivals that overlap by just one day.

The first festival is called Exmas and for fifty days the people prepare for it, buying and sending cards and gifts, decorating trees and preparing food

But when the day of the festival comes, most of the citizens being exhausted with the preparation, lie in bed till noon. But in the evening they eat five times as much supper as on other days and, crowning themselves with crowns of paper become intoxicated.”

The other festival, called Crissmas, starts on the day that Exmas finishes. But those who keep Crissmas, do the opposite, they

rise early on that day with shining faces and go before sunrise to certain temples where they partake of a sacred feast.

and then celebrate for several weeks afterwards.

For me Advent is about waiting for the unexpected. It’s a shame to miss all that by skipping ahead to what we think we know happens at the end of the season, on 25th December. To fail to engage with the now part of the story day by day and week by week. To fail to really listen to and reflect on the now part of the story. To have already moved on to the next part, because we know what happens next and it’s more exciting, more interesting, or perhaps more comforting.

This Advent how about really living in the present? Resisting that strong temptation to skip ahead, Enjoy the anticipation. Enjoy the state of not-knowing, because, if you enter into it, almost anything could happen. Enjoy the possibility that something truly amazing might come to pass. That God might just do something in your life that you didn’t expect, and that His coming into the world – your world – might mean that things are never the same again.



The Season of Remembrance

We are now entering what some call the ‘Season of Remembrance’. It starts with All Saintson 1st November (though this year we will celebrate All Saints on Sunday 30th), followed by All Souls on 2nd and continues with Armistice Day on 11th until Remembrance Sunday (this year on 13th). It’s a time when we remember the Saints of the Church, those men and women who are recognised as having an exceptional degree of holiness and who are felt to have a particular likeness or closeness to God. We remember also friends and family members, who we have loved but see no more. And of course we remember those who’ve given their lives in the armed conflicts of more than 100 years. In churches and communities across the United Kingdom, all of these events are marked with public acts of worship and of remembrance.

On April 5, 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and teacher, was arrested by the Gestapo and thrown into prison; on April 9, 1945, he was executed. Whilst incarcerated, he wrote a collection of the letters, essays and poems. They were addressed to his parents and to a friend, and form an extraordinary picture of a sensitive man whose faith and dedication to service never wavered, whose spiritual depth enabled him to overcome the most trying of circumstances.  Tain CoS Film Club will be showing a film about him on Friday 11thNovember at 7:30pm (see Diary).

He was a man of great faith, intelligence and compassion, who understood so well the problems of the modern world. Resisting ease and compromise, he was constantly ministering to his fellow prisoners right up to the time of his death. He was a saint, a friend to many and a casualty of war and therefore part of each element of our Season of Remembrance.

One of the short pieces that he wrote to his friend Eberhard Bethge is called “Stations on the Road to Freedom”. In it there’s a short verse on each of four ‘stations’ on that road: Discipline, Action, Suffering and Death. This last he described as “the supreme festival on the road to freedom”. The verse on Death reads as follows:

Come now, Queen of the feasts on the road to eternal freedom! 
O death, cast off the grievous chains and lay low the 
thick walls of our mortal body and our blinded soul, 
that at last we may behold what here we have failed to see. 
O freedom, long have we sought thee in discipline and in action and in suffering. 
Dying, we behold thee now, and see thee in the face of God.

“Stations on the Road to Freedom” Dietrich Bonhoeffer



The Coming Winter

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.

Proverbs 31:8-9

Bishop Mark is among leaders from faith communities, charities, front-line support organisations and trade unions who signed an open letter to Prime Minister Liz Truss, urging her to “ensure that people on the lowest incomes have enough to live in the months ahead”.

The letter read:

As faith groups, charities, trade unions and front-line organisations we have seen the cost of living emergency escalating not only in the statistics but in the lives of people we meet day to day, in foodbanks, debt centres and in our places of worship. The least well off in our communities are facing the sharpest end of this crisis, and without substantial support will be dragged into destitution.

It is the urgent, moral responsibility of the Prime Minister to ensure that people on the lowest incomes have enough to live in the months ahead. Spiralling costs are affecting everyone, but for those who were already fighting to keep their heads above water this winter’s challenges will be a matter of life and death.

The release of the letter coincided with new analysis from Prof Donald Hirsch, which calculates that despite the Energy Price Guarantee announcement made by the government on 8th September, a family of four receiving Universal Credit will still require an additional £1,391 over the next six months to stay warm and fed. It also came ahead of the government’s fiscal statement issues on 23rd September, when they announced further measures targeted at combatting the rising cost of living, focussed mainly on tax cuts which offer little help for those most in need.

The letter was signed by 52 charity, faith and community leaders, including representatives from The Methodist Church, The Muslim Council of Britain, The Hindu Council UK and Jewish leaders from the across the UK, as well as charities and organisations such as The Food Foundation, the Child Poverty Action Group, Action for Children, The Big Issue and The Trussell Trust.

The letter called for targeted financial support which takes into account family size and need, can be distributed quickly and in amounts large enough to enable families to live decently this winter and beyond.

The signatories argue that

increases in poverty and destitution because of this crisis are not inevitable, if government, business and civil society recognise that this is an emergency and act now”,

and called on the government to use the tools at their disposal to urgently deliver support.

In the meantime, the Food Banks and the St Finnbarr’s Charities Shop need our support as never before, as they do what they can to help plug some of the gap.

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God.

Leviticus 19:9-10

James and Simon

Behold I will make all things new

In Autumn 2019, no-one predicted how things would be a year later – covid, lockdowns, working from home, few people flying, etc. In the optimism surrounding COP26 in Autumn 2021, whilst few expected that the political rhetoric about targets for reduction in fossil fuel use would be matched by decisive and legally binding action, a complete abandonment of them wasn’t expected either. Back then, the idea that Russia would invade Ukraine within six months was not something that any of us expected, nor the consequences of that for fuel prices and the worldwide supply of staple foods.

Since 2019, six months is a very long time in terms of making plans for the future. On Friday we learned that the energy price cap for domestic gas and electricity is to rise by 80% in October and that will put keeping warm this winter out of reach of a large number of people in the fifth biggest economy in the world. Is that something that you would have believed just a couple of years ago, pre-brexit, pre-covid, pre-invasion?

So here we are at the Season of Creation again, with news items about burning more rather than less fossil fuels, a large number of the bathing beaches in the UK polluted with raw sewage, hosepipe bans in a number of areas but also flash-flooding and in much of Europe soaring summer temperatures. It’s the stuff of the Book of Revelation:

And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a violent earthquake, such as had not occurred since people were upon the earth, so violent was that earthquake. … And every island fled away, and no mountains were to be found; and huge hailstones, each weighing about a hundred pounds, dropped from heaven on people, until they cursed God for the plague of the hail, so fearful was that plague.

Revelation 16:18-21

If things can change so drastically over a short period of time, can we not hope for, pray for and work for positive change in our society, our country and our world. A society based on God’s values, where everyone no matter what their circumstances is of value and their identity is based on being beloved children of God, rather than a society based on world values, where what you have, what you do and what people say about you determine your identity. 

During 2020 many people discovered that there was more to life than work as they worked from home. They learned to love family and friends more when they were unable to visit them. They helped their neighbours, who they hadn’t really got to know before and appreciated a cheery ‘hello’ from a stranger. We could base our positive new world on a more positive image from Revelation:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth … And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.

Revelation 21:1a,5-7

They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’

Revelation 7:16-17


Screeching U-turn or Repentance?

When politicians change their mind about something, their opponents (and sometimes their supporters also) lambast them for doing so. Rishi Sunak was accused this week of a ‘screeching u-turn’ for suggesting that he might help people with their energy bills by temporarily removing VAT, when last year he refused to do such a thing. Liz Truss meanwhile has been criticised for changing from a ‘remainer’ to a ‘brexiteer’ and from a Liberal-Democrat to a Tory. Boris Johnson once said that Keir Starmer has ‘more flip flops than Bournemouth Beach’. The presumption is that changing your mind is a thoroughlybad thing to do, even when circumstances change.  This is all very adversarial and as the current Tory leadership race implies: “Whoever is not with me is against me”.

In the New Testament Greek the word that is generally translated into English as ‘Repent’ is ‘Metanoia’, which literally means “to change the mind”. Repentance is therefore concerned with fundamentally changing your mind about something.  Whilst the word Metanoia was actually a military term that described a soldier marching in one direction and then doing an about-face or to turn around, in the context of faith it means a whole lot more.

Contrary to the way that changing your mind seems to be viewed in political circles, repentance has a much more positive sense. A change in the way you think that leads to achange in the way that you live. When you really change your mind about something, it leads to change in the way you think about it, talk about it, feel about it, and the way that you act. Repentance is a decisive change in direction; it’s a change of mind that leads to a change of thinking that leads to a change of attitude that leads to a change of feeling that leads to a change of values that leads to a change in the way you live.

When John the Baptist appeared on the scene at the start of the Gospels, it was as one who was preparing the way for Jesus the Christ and he called everyone to repentance. In the Gospels of both Mark and Matthew, Jesus begins his public ministry with a call to “Repent”, for people to turn their lives around. In addition, the Apostle Paul when preaching to both Jews and Gentiles/Greeks urged them to “turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus”. That is what we are all called to do and to keep doing as part of being Christian.

As I write, Anglican Bishops from across the globe (including the seven from the Scottish Episcopal Church) are meeting at the Lambeth Conference. After a slightly shaky start, the organisers had the courage to have a change of heart in relation to the call on Human Dignity to be discussed next week and rather than deriding them for their ‘repentance’ we should applaud the fact that in the revised call they have opened up the possibility for genuine dialog between bishops who disagree to allow them to hear each other and disagree well. As Mark writes in his Gospel: “Whoever is not against us is for us”.

Let us hope and pray that as people in our communities and across the country face very difficult times ahead, that politicians can learn to have the humility to both change their minds, as situations and people’s circumstances change, and at the same time applaud others who do so. Now wouldn’t that transport us to a better world?