Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Even the hairs on your head are all counted

The human genome is pretty amazing: it’s made up of 24 chromosomes, which between them contain about 30,000 genes, made up of over 3000 million bits (called “bases”). That's a lot of bases: if I were to count one of these bases every second, it would take me 100 years to count them all. And that’s inside essentially every one of the 50 trillion cells in your body.
It has been reported this week, in what is likely to be a very major outcome from the Human Genome Project, that it now seems that around 80% or so of the human genome is functional in one way or another. Whilst many people would assume that all of the human genome would be doing something, until very recently scientists thought this was not the case. Indeed, it has been known for some time that only about 2-3% of the human genome actually contained information that led to the production of protein molecules and thus to all the components of the body, whilst a further small percentage was involved in keeping the chromosomes structurally intact and still a further small percentage in the regulation of the activities of genes. The remainder of the genome was routinely referred to as ‘junk DNA’.

This latest discovery not only signals that the term ‘junk DNA’ must itself be junked, but also vastly revises the proportion of the genome involved in regulatory activities - scientists have identified about four million genetic 'switches' that modulate the activities of genes, and many of them are associated with changes of risk in disease, diseases as diverse as heart disease, diabetes and mental illness. This opens up whole new avenues of research into these diseases and thus may be very important in developing new therapies and preventative strategies, which is clearly to be welcomed. However, previously expressed concerns about genetic selection and/or modification do, of course, remain valid.

We still have a lot to learn about what it means to be human, but the Psalmist was certainly right when he wrote: “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. (Psalm 139:14)

Monday, 24 September 2012

From here to Korea

The Moderator’s recent blog post from Korea highlights the Church of Scotland’s partnership with the wider Christian family across the world. 

He also pays tribute to the Scottish missionary John Ross who helped to translate the New Testament into Korean, which is being marked this year as the Church in Korea celebrates its centenary.

South Korea’s economic development since the 1950s has been remarkable, though there is a shared realisation in Scotland as well as Korea and indeed around the world that economic growth needs to take account of environmental sustainability.  The issue of renewable energy in Korea will be raised by the Moderator at the Korean Church’s General Assembly.

The occasion of the anniversary, coinciding with the Moderator’s visit, has even been the inspiration for a motion in the Scottish Parliament proposed by Rhoda Grant MSP, a member for the Highlands and Islands region:

*S4M-04162 Rhoda Grant: Recognition for Ross-shire Minister for Christian Work in Korea—That the Parliament recognises the significance of the work of the Scottish missionary, Rev John Ross, originally of Ross-shire, in his contribution to translating the New Testament into Korean, leaving a lasting legacy for Christians in Korea; wishes the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland well as he joins the General Assembly of the Korean Church in celebrating its 100th anniversary; understands that the Moderator, Right Rev Albert Bogle, will address the General Assembly of the Korean Church on issues relating to renewable energy policy, and considers that both Scotland and Korea play a significant contribution in promoting renewable energy policy.

Friday, 21 September 2012

21 September – a day of prayer for peace

Today is the UN International Day of Peace, and the World Council of Churches Day of Prayer for Peace.  21 September is increasingly being established in the Church calendar as a day of reflection and action for a more peaceful and just world.

The focus for this year’s Peacemaking Sunday is around global attempts to introduce an Arms Trade Treaty, which has been the focus of campaigns for many years and which has been strongly supported by the Churches.

As the conflict in Syria continues, it is right that we take time to stop and remind ourselves of the importance of peace, the complexity of securing it, and how lucky we are to live where there is peace.

This prayer is taken from the Peacemaking Sunday resources, and is a prayer for peacemakers:

A prayer for peacemakers everywhere...
Lord, we pray for all those people who in the coming week will try to be the means of bringing peace to situations of conflict and confusion.

We pray for politicians and leaders who are working to bring warring countries and factions to the negotiating table. We especially remember the work of the United Nations. We ask for wisdom and insight for deal makers In the corridors of power, we ask for protection for the 17 UN peace operations deployed across the globe. We pray for safe and successful missions in Haiti, the Western Sahara, Liberia, the Ivory Coast, the Congo, Sudan, Kosovo, Cyprus, Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and East Timor.

We pray for countries where democracy is fragile and the rule of law is vulnerable.

We pray for ACAS, and their work in the UK to mediate where there are disputes within the workplace.

We pray for counsellors, trying to bring reconciliation to families where husbands are divided from wives, and one generation estranged from another.

We pray for our own churches. We ask for your forgiveness for our petty fallings out, for our very public disputes about how we interpret Scripture and about how we hold holiness and inclusiveness in tension.

Finally, Lord, where there is conflict in our own lives, perhaps even in our own hearts, may we become more submissive to you and the ways in which you call us to live, which are always the best. Amen.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

In the corridors of power

One of the privileges of being Convener of the Church of Scotland’s Church and Society Council is that people want to talk. 

As my family, colleagues and congregation will testify, I like talking.

This week I have been able to meet with Dr Alasdair Allan MSP, minister for Science in the Scottish Government, and with Johann Lamont MSP, leader of the Scottish Labour Party. 

After I took up this role in May I wrote them – and lots of other people – to introduce myself and the work of the Church.  Alasdair and Johann asked to meet, to talk and reflect together as colleagues and people I’ll need to work with for the next four years.

So this week I was down in the Scottish Parliament twice, once on Tuesday and again on Wednesday.  What a fantastic and inspiring place that is! 

The Council's work is seen through the lens of the Gospel bias to vulnerable, marginalised and poorest people.  So when I meet politicians and influence-shapers, this is the message I want to get across to them: the love of God is open to all, and to follow Christ is to show love to all.  In terms of policy making and political process, this means equality, fairness, justice and help to those who need it most.

I realise that my role in speaking on behalf of the Church in the political world is a privilege – having half a million members behind me is both massively uplifting and incredibly daunting!  But I am assured that serious politicians take the Church seriously – not because it is big, but because of what it does in terms of serving others, and for the values of love, generosity and graciousness that are at the heart of what we do.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

A right royal stooshie; but is it a real priority?

The Earl and Countess of Strathearn (Kate Middleton and Prince William to you and me), have been at the centre of the world’s media attention in the past fortnight. 

The embarrassment, and questions about privacy which has dogged them, has dominated the news. Such an invasion of privacy is apalling and our fascination with a young couple's private moments (and private parts) is a sad indictment.

But seriously, aren't there things that should grab the world's attention more? I think so, and strangely, it isn't even five steps away from the headline that has dominated.  

On their travels, the couple visited the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu, a member of the Commonwealth and which has Queen Elizabeth as head of state, as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

Tuvalu is a low-lying collection of atolls and islands, the highest altitude is just 4.6 metres above sea level.  This means Tuvalu is extremely vulnerable to rising sea levels caused by climate change.  Some people suggest that Tuvalu will be uninhabitable in the next hundred years.

Rev. Tafue Lusama, General  Secretary of the Church in Tuvalu, has sent a message to Churches in Scotland about the visit of William and Kate:

‘We are hoping that this visit will further serve as an opportunity for them to be exposed to the fate that we are in and experience what we are experiencing due to the negative impacts of Climate Change.’

Please share the story of the people of Tuvalu, and next time you get into a conversation about the private lives of the royal family, think again about the sad prospects for the people of Tuvalu, whose way of life, culture and nationality are under threat. 

Please continue to pray for the victims of climate change and for the future of the people of Tuvalu, whose culture, way of life and nationality are on the verge of extinction.  Resources for marking Creation Time (1 September to 4 October) are available on the Church of Scotland website.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Black Wednesday

The date, 16 September 1992, exactly 20 years ago, on which the British Government was forced to remove the Pound Sterling from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). Britain had joined the system for maintaining fixed exchange rates only a few years earlier but high inflation and poor economic management rendered it untenable and Britain’s exit was the start of a serious recession which led to business failures on a large scale and a major crash in the housing market that left many people with negative equity on their mortgages.

This event came hard on the heels of problems in the corporate world-BCCI, Polly Peck and Maxwell Communications gave the impression that all was not well in the seats of economic and political power.

Various policy initiatives and corporate re-structuring were introduced to address the difficulties but, although they had some success-inflation was brought under control, they did not remove the types of risk from our economic life that led to a series of major problems including the split capital investment fiasco and, more recently, the worst financial crisis since the 1930s.

Arrogance, ignorance and greed continue to be major driving factors in our economic and social lives. It is time for a serious re-think.. Black Wednesday, despite its costs, changed little. It would be a mistake to let the current crisis pass without learning its lessons.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Jobs and Numbers

Sometimes numbers can dazzle, sometimes they tell a story that causes real concern. Adventure (or exploration) and independence, are essential parts of growing up and growing into work. These are some of the crucial elements being denied Scottish young people because they cannot find real job opportunities, opportunities that give them experiences that foster a sense of purpose and responsibility.

The number of unemployed young people is a figure which is so great that it’s hard to grasp. Yet for each individual, there is a story to be told. Countless stories of the difficulty of finding employment and the knock-on effect of unemployment amongst a whole generation of young people could fill every page of today’s newspapers, and more.

The continued trend of the high numbers of young people out of work is very concerning. And yesterday, yet another survey showed that in spite of recent improvements, Scotland’s general employment outlook is lagging behind the rest of the UK. Compounded with today’s labour market statistics, this demonstrates that this is a continuing issue which isn’t going to go away in the near future.

The problem here is not just the wages that are not being earned, but the opportunities that are being denied.  Unemployed young people are not being granted the opportunity to experience a working life and all the challenges and rewards that this presents.  The first few years of a working life are often the most formative, building self-confidence, developing new skills and discovering talents, as well as the offering the chance to gain experience of working alongside people you might otherwise never have the chance to meet.

For thousands of young people, the prospect of developing and maturing as an adult and as a citizen is being denied. This surely has to be the real worry behind the headline-grabbing figures.  The sheer number of young people who are out of work is a very real demonstration of the reality of today’s so-called austerity measures.  But what this will mean for the rest of society in years to come, when this generation’s collective out of work experience makes its very real impact, is far more difficult to gauge.

Monday, 10 September 2012

End-game for tobacco?

When you think about it, the steps they are taking may be extreme, but so is the situation.
Tobacco is essentially the only drug which, when used as recommended by the manufacturers, causes cancer, increases your chances for heart disease exponentially,  worsens asthma, and doesn’t do wonders for your oral hygiene either! 
Its effects cost the NHS billions every year – 100,000 deaths in the UK every year are directly caused by smoking. The medical evidence for the damage it causes is irrefutable. If tobacco was a new drug, it would probably not be legal! I have to say that I was encouraged to read that Tasmania, not content with laws insisting that cigarettes must be sold in plain packages, has been discussing banning tobacco products altogether
Some will argue that this is another step in the unfair persecution of smokers, and that to do so would risk a radical shift to illicit tobacco sales.  Some would prefer that we in Scotland (which, lets not forget, was the first part of the UK to ban smoking in enclosed public spaces - which many people said would never work) should instead follow suit with Australia and move to plain packaging, or perhaps to smoke-free cars or banning smoking in more and more places (including hospital grounds and playparks). 
I think that all these ideas have merit and we should explore any and all ways that we can work to rid our air space of this toxin. But you’ve got to give the Tasmania solution - to prohibit tobacco sales to everyone born after 2000, so creating a 'smoke-free generaration' - some consideration; by allowing the continued sale of tobacco are we putting future generations at risk? Maybe it's time that we realised that this noxious, addictive weed causes so much harm that its place in a civilised society needs to be seriously questioned.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Child Poverty - It Shouldn't Happen Here

I was shocked to hear the news today that there are 3.5 million children living in poverty in the UK.  And the figures are set to soar in the coming years. 

Today Save the Children has published its report ‘Child Poverty in the UK in 2012: It Shouldn’t Happen Here’, which has found that the UK’s poorest children are bearing the brunt of the recession. 

The report is based on a survey of parents and children, and I welcome the opportunity to expose the voices which are so often hidden from the debate which rages over the economy.  One of the most telling things which it has exposed is the extent to which children are aware of financial hardship. 

The Coalition Government says it is committed to eradicating child poverty by 2020, but it’s difficult to see the evidence of this when figures like these are revealed. 

I’m pleased to see children and families getting a voice through this report, but it just shows the impact which austerity measures are having.  It’s difficult to believe that children in the UK are going to school hungry, without adequate clothing, every day.  We must do all we can to help those without a voice. 

That’s why I support the proposals for not just a minimum wage, but a living wage.  I welcome the consultation into the Living Wage (Scotland) Bill and look forward to contributing to this in the next few weeks.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Welcome to Creation Time

When I was growing up, we were constantly reminded to "leave a place better than you found it" - so when we were invited to dinner at somebody's house, we were expected to help with the dishes, when we went on a picnic or a walk, part of the fun was seeing how much rubbish you could pick up. And even if it wasn't your personal mess, it was still a mess, so why shouldn't you be the one to help sort it out! Leaving a place better than you found it - sound advice. 

The start of September signals the beginning of Creation Time, an ecumenical church season when Christians are encouraged to think, pray and act on issues relating to the environment, nature and the created world.

There are many reasons why Christians need to be aware of and involved in environmental issues.  For me it isn’t just a matter of heeding the scientific evidence that without our action on carbon emissions, the effects of climate change will be devastating.   That’s really a given, and you don’t need to have faith to get it.  For me, there remains a much stronger, and much older, cause, which is that the earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it. 

We have a sacred trust and responsibility to care for the planet.  But also as we ourselves are part of creation we need to be more aware of how our actions, decisions and choices impact on the waters, air, plants, animals and human beings that we share this world with.