Doom and gloom religion …or what?












What a waste of money!

The Cast is stuffed with people who couldn’t get a role in Downton. The only person who seems to be acting is Michael Gambon as the doddering Godfrey. By which I mean he honestly behaves as if he has lost some kind of terrible bet, hoping beyond hope that no-one will see him or recognise him…I have long suspected Gambon of not bothering to read his scripts before he comes on set. But I have no idea what everyone else’s excuse is”

Don’t hold back…tell us what you really think!!







A lot of Scottish religion was like that…back in the day…

You’re all doomed!

Fire and brimstone preaching….

Hellfire and damnation …


A long tradition…

Leading back to men like Zephaniah…


The great day of the |Lord is near. Very near, and coming fast…

That will be a bitter day….it will be a day of fury, of trouble and distress

A day of ruin and destruction, a day of darkness and gloom…a black and cloudy day…..I will bring such disasters upon mankind that everyone will grope around like a blind man…and their dead bodies will lie rotting on the ground.

The whole earth will be destroyed by the fire of his anger – he will put an end…a sudden end …to everyone who lives on earth.

Don’t hold back there, Zephaniah

Tell us what you really think!


In its day…

Scottish religiosity was particularly prone to that…tone….

The Statue of John Knox in the quadrangle at New College…

fierce and fearsome…

as if to remind all aspiring divinity students

just what their business was, what their emphasis should be!

The metal Jougs at the door…of Spott Church… telling of times

when religion was harsh, unbending and cruel…

Kirk session minutes…that hounded individuals

and victimised the people who did not measure up in one way or another…

Times when religion and church were about



And Images of God…presented and proclaimed

were of a

Stern; judgemental tyrant…

Times when

Individuals were dangled over the pit of hell…

Bullied and intimidated and terrified into the kingdom…

-Guilt was the weapon of choice…condemnation the end product…

as the unco guid… stood in aloof disdain over men like Robert Burns…


This, for a time, defined and determined what Scottish religion would look like

and how it would find expression within the nation…


It lingered… and evolved…morphed…

I grew up in the 60s in a church where there was a lot of guilt around…

guilt that we weren’t quite measuring up:

•          Not praying enough.

•          Reading our Bible enough

•          Giving enough.

•          Committed enough.

So that, it felt strange, any given Sunday,

 if you left church not feeling pretty much beaten up

as you faced the grim reality of your own inadequacies,

and were exhorted –yet again, this week.

 to try harder, do better…serve more passionately.


And so, you do,

You get used to that tone.

It becomes the background music of your Christian life…

It becomes the expectation within.


Such that, if you don’t hear that sometimes strident and occasionally harsh reminder of what a rubbish Christian you are…how poor and threadbare your life and witness…

you begin to think the message must be missing something,

that it’s bland, and shallow…

letting you off too lightly…


It’s a fact that over the long years of my ministry here, some people have chosen to go elsewhere- because they didn’t find the preaching challenging enough

They wanted something more robust, with more demand in it…


If you’ve grown accustomed to a certain vibe within the preaching,

which if it is absent…and you leave church –

not feeling shaken up and stirred

and challenged to achieve something more, something better…

you miss that feeling of unease that has become so regular a feature of worship – and you think you must be getting some watered-down version of the truth.

Let’s go somewhere else, where we get the same old feeling that unsettled us and challenged our complacencies, revealed our inadequacies.

The truth is - you miss the guilt.


Mind you,

some people think it might have

gone a bit too much the other way….?

In a recent article in the Times, Andrew TICKELL speaks of

A woolly, unchallenging Christianity that is soft-headed and saccharine,

a Christianity that rots the teeth.

For most modern Scots, religion means listening to dreary sentimental performances, from second rate ham actors in fancy dress.

Unchallenging platitudes embodied in an easy sunny lambkin Christ,

a wet icon without the muscle or the will to turn tables…

An ecumenical squishiness that argues

if you are more or less a decent soul - the Almighty will surely smile on you in the next life…

Lurching between sticky censoriousness and intellectual vacuity

in mind, body and spirit…Scotland’s churches are feeble and failing.


Don’t hold back…Andrew…

come off the fence and tell  us what you really feel!!


Is this who we are…what we are like…how we are perceived?


Rather too matey with God…

Harmless fluffy teddy bear religion…


If we think this over-familiarity with God will broaden our appeal…

we are wrong…

Small wonder we risk being

despised by other world religions

that see their god as robust

And not to be messed with

To be feared

Held in awe…

..(try chatting  to your neighbour in the pew about the weather….at the mosque!!!

Try being casual in an Orthodox church…!!)


The religion of Israel’s prophets was certainly not casual

Definitely not chatty…

Not tactful,  very often not tender

For Israel’s prophets there would be

No tiptoeing tentatively towards the truth…

No gentle nudges in the direction of the kingdom of God.

No coy, oily persuasiveness…

Just the truth…as they saw it…blunt and bold.


And we could go on to delineate the whole panoply of prophets

major and minor, shepherds and philosophers –

in the grip of

a tough word from the Lord …that had to be spoken…

Amos, Hosea, Micah, Deborah,

Ezekiel…Malachi…John the Baptist…

People possessed of truth …and possessed by truth.

The proud tradition of the prophetic voice…

Insistent, uncompromising, uncomfortable.

And never bland… they did not do vanilla, these folks!

And their example is a reminder to us – in our post

“How to Win friends and influence people” era,

 to be careful not to offer people something less than the whole truth,

the whole uncompromised truth…

even if sometimes that truth hurts

is hard to handle.

Makes us feel uncomfortable…


Where does the balance lie…??

Both elements are clearly in the Bible…

The hard truth – the tender heart…


Do we end up just taking the bits we like…

·        caring shepherd

·        Loving father

·        Motherly enfolding

Or do we hear the doom and gloom of Zephaniah…

You’re all going to die!


We refuse bland.

We will not talk of some kind of

wimpy God -wringing his hand ineffectually at the state of the world…

We will take account of his anger at

·        Injustice

·        Exploitation

·        Indifference

We refuse to reduce the Christ of the gospels is to

Gentle Jesus meek and mild

But rather we announce him to be strong and brave and courageous to speak hard truths

As well as welcome the broken and seek the lost…



Still some people stuck with the loveless God

who stands to condemn, as if this were his purpose:

Not helpful…not true..

Yes we need to offer more than Father Christmas God…

To give the whole picture…as best we can…

Always allowing that we have only approximation, interpretations…

We admit that our talking about God…our attempts to describe the indescribable are about as successful as the blind men describing an elephant…

When they only have a little bit of the story.

A bit of humility never goes amiss when we spout our certainties about the nature of God…

Of course,

sometimes we have to be told.

We might not like it.

We don’t like it

But sometimes we need it…

The truth.

We need it and we grow because of it…

Regardless of how much it hurts.


However, and it’s a big however…

This is not the whole story…

And if it becomes the whole story, then something is seriously skewed

as to how we see ourselves our faith and our church…


For side by side with the need to speak the truth

Is the tenderness of God…

The tone of gentleness and love with which Paul addresses his congregation…


1:3 I thank my God every time I remember you,

1:4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you,

1:5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.

1:6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.


1:7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God's grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel.

1:8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.


It is quite wrong for ministers to bruise and bully and batter their congregations and ratchet up the guilt factor…so that people feel beleaguered and broken…


When the implication is clear that

•          Doubt is a failure

•          That to cling to faith only just - in spite of some terrible stuff happening in your life - is hardly adequate –just not good enough…

•          That to embrace the rich opportunities of life, and to use your insight and intelligence to make choices and decisions is somehow less worthy than a more apparently devout seeking of God’s will…

•          When the question is posed as to whether we are the real deal or not…

So that we begin to wonder if we are…though we know we are …

but somehow the quality of our believing is dismissed…

and we are left to question the depth and genuineness of our commitment…


When the emphasis is on God’s wrath, anger, judgement, power, command…

and not so much on his grace, his tender mercy, his kindliness and his compassion…

Something has got out of synch…

Something has become lopsided.


The choice is not between firebrand truthful preaching

 and trite bland nice wee stories from the People’s Friend


There are so many wounded fawns running in the forest – so many people bruised and battered, betrayed and alone – who long to be affirmed and valued – hugged and held.  Egos that have been shredded by circumstance and all the hurts we do to each other. Out there is a bottomless well of needing to be gentled, held, loved.  Individuals, fragile and brittle - who have started to wonder if they matter at all to anyone.

And the rest of the world seems so self-contained – in such a hurry – so blind and deaf to the need in us.

What the world needs now is tenderness.

There’s  passage from Hosea – that has always been one of my favourites. I love the daring dangerous, outrageous imagery of the prophet. –

 God like a kindly loving father down on his knees playing with the child

God holding the child cheek to cheek.

I love that experience.

A little baby cheek to cheek

God with the child resting on his chest – tousled hair – safe secure loved… in strong place – in the right place.

Where we belong.

Quote Psalm 131:

Lord I have given up my pride and turned away from my arrogance. Instead I a contented and at peace. As a child lies quietly in its mothers arms …So my heart is quiet within me.


These powerful initially shocking images make a wonderful symbolic statement of love: A God who loves in all the risk of that all the closeness of that.


But how does that tenderness of God reach us?   How is the love and fatherly care brought to our story with its need?


Certainly through music and beauty – through the words of fine hymns and the power of good tunes.  How can we sing together

Do not be afraid for I have redeemed you

I have called you by your name –you are mine..

When you walk through the waters I’ll be with you

You will never sink beneath the waves…


How can we sing:

But you are always close to me, following all my ways

May I be always close to you – following all your ways, Lord


A perfect blend of music and word – truth and tune – reaching into our aloneness and pain with healing power.


He brings his tender touch through the people he commissions to do his work in the world – to be his hands and his heart –

•          The nun by a bedside touching a fevered  brow

•          A welcoming hand that brings the homeless person in from the cold..

•          The listening ear of the nurse in the long watches of the night who is there for the frightened patient

•          The pastor who holds someone’s hand in the crisis of loss

•          A faithful elder who calls and calls and calls…

People out there – incarnating the tender heart of God – ]

making peace at work – lifting the spirits of the down-hearted-

Gently leading the child in the right paths.


And when we make the space – take the times – seek out the moments – he is there with us – we meditate on his truth and settle in to his love…and in the quiet moment of prayer – or of study – the tender touch of God enfolds us.



So times change;

fads in romance come and go.

But tenderness is never out of fashion.

In human relations.

In God’s approach.


Tenderness so precious because it is about

Valuing someone

Affirming the worth of someone

Giving to someone.

Loving someone.


This is the God we wait upon

This is the God who listens to us- because his heart is tender.