For forthcoming broadcasts see my public itinerary.
Click links below for recent contributions to "Thought for the Day" (Radio Scotland) or "Prayer for the Day" (Radio 4). These thoughts only go back to June 2014, as most of the others, going back to 2005, have been published as Parables of Northern Seed by the Iona Community's Wild Goose Publications.
Radio Scotland's Thoughts for the Day can be heard for up to 30 days on Listen Again
for Good Morning Scotland, at about 1 hr 23 mins into the programme. The scripts of recent contributions are shown below.
146. Next up ("if we're spared," as they'd say on Lewis) - Tuesday 18 June
145. 18 March 2019 - Christchurch, white supremacy and Abrahamic teachings on refugees
144. 19 February 2019 - Theft versus Catholic social teaching on "the destination of goods"
143. 29 January 2019 - Brexit, the Division Bell and the Bhagavad Gita
142. 10 December 2018 - 50th anniversary of the deaths of Barth and Merton
141. 28 November 2018 - Coping with climate refugees - Isle of Luing & St Andrew
140. 7 November 2018 - Donald Trump's support base and the demons from our past
139. 26 October 2018 - The "hardcore huntress" and decorum in deer stalking
138. 12 October 2018 - The psychological shadow, and Moses' bronze serpent
137. 25 September 2018 - Obesity, Cookery and the Hebridean diet
136. 19 September 2018 - Korea and the narcissism of small differences
135. 15 August 2018 - Victory over Japan Day, and the Buddhist monk (Listen here)
134. 18 July 2018 - Saint Thaney, Tenew or Enoch - mother of Kentigern/Mungo of Glasgow & patron of tenacity
133. 27 June 2018 - 25th anniversary of the Assynt Crofters' Trust land reform
132. 4 May 2018 - Child poverty and access to nature's beauty
131. 22 February 2018 - Falling through thin ice - a true fable from Lewis
130. 7 September 2017 - Hurricane Irma and ancient archaeology
129. 28 July 2017 - Pilgrimage to Ness, Isle of Lewis
128. 29 June 2017 - The Craiglockhart war poets and the pioneering of PTSD treatment
127. 17 May 2017 - Sheep worrying and Good Shepherds
126. 24 March 2017 - Westminster terror attack, and the Rain Maker story
125. 9 Februrary 2017 - Prayer in spiritual activism at Standing Rock
124. 13 December 2016 - The future of work
123. 15 November 2016 - The supermoon of life
122. 27 October 2016 - JM Barrie's Mary Rose
122. 4 August 2016 - Suicide Squad movie: evil and redemption
121. 26 July 2016 - BHS, Isle of Harris, and the "unacceptable face of capitalism"
120. 15 May 2016 - Religious hate talk and the Orlando LGBT massacre
119. 3 May 2016 - Fr Daniel Berrigan, anti-war activist, and political charisma
118. 7 April 2016 - JM Barrie, Mary Rose, childhood and old age
117. 27 October 2015 - Tax credit benefits and hunger in today's Britain
116. 2 October 2015 - 70th Anniversary of Christian Aid
115. 3 September 2015 - Refugees, and Softening the Human Heart
114. 30 July 2015 - Canoe Trip to the Monks of Borerary and Kinghorn RNLI [Listen here]]
113. 27 May 2015 - Oscar Romero's liberation theology of land reform [Listen here]
112. 7 April 2015 - The "People of the Cross" - violence in the name of God
111. 26 February 2015 - "How the mighty have fallen" - Christine A.M. Davis & Malcolm Rifkind [Listen here]
110. 22 January 2015 - After Charlie Hebdo - the Muslim Good Samaritan
109. 21 November 2014 - Obesity and food culture
108. 31 October 2014 - The Young Man in the Fairy Knoll
107. 28 August 2014 - From Revenge to Cycle of Forgiveness - Alyas Karmani & Mpho Tutu
106. 24 August 2014 - BBC Radio 2 Moment for Reflection - Miann, the ardent desire (Listen here)
As the Muslim community in Christchurch this week mourn their loved ones, including some who had fled to New Zealand seeking sanctuary, the name of faith has yet again been tangled with mass murder.
In his chilling manifesto, the Australian killer justifies white supremacy, in part, by quoting thousand-year-old material from the First Crusade, urging “the race of the elect” to “fight against the enemies of the Christian people.”
While you can find religious texts like that, the overwhelming spirit of all three Abrahamic faiths is that violence against strangers is unconscionable.
The Jewish scriptures insist that the stranger, foreigner or alien be treated “as the native among you”, because, “you too were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
The Christian scriptures have Jesus starting life as a refugee to Egypt, and later saying, “I was a stranger, and you took me in.”
The website of the UN High Commission for Refugees quotes the Qur’an, that if any disbeliever seeks protection, “escort him to where he will be secure.”*
But what might such a spirit mean in practical terms?
These past few days, I’ve seen images of people outside mosques with placards saying things like, “Jewish New Yorkers Support Our Muslim Neighbors.”**
Andrew Graystone of Manchester City of Sanctuary stood outside a mosque, his placard saying, “You are my friends. I will keep watch while you pray.”***
In times like these, let such be our prayer or deepest yearning too. If we see a person looking insecure, maybe offer a friendly greeting or a little smile. If someone might seem vulnerable on the bus, maybe sit close enough to be a reassuring presence.
“You shall love the stranger as yourself,” says the Bible’s book of Leviticus. Whether we believe or not there is a God of love, that’s the only faith that dignifies humanity.
* Leviticus 19:33-34, etc.; Matthew 25:35; UNHCR goo.gl/GwP3ey
** @JewishAction - https://twitter.com/jewishaction/status/1106634796149735424
*** @AndrewGraystone - https://goo.gl/Nk2YkB
A recent survey found that one in four Scots – well over a million of us - confess to having stolen from shops with automatic check-outs.*
Loses have gone up from one-and-a-half percent, to four percent at self-scanning tills. The criminologists say that some folks don’t quite think of it as stealing when “interacting with a machine”, and so the world becomes more alienated.
Such thoughts of thieving sent me back to when I used to be a VSO teacher in Papua New Guinea. Some timber for our classrooms had been stolen. I went and told my boss, Archbishop Virgil Copas, a saintly old Australian who sadly shook his head, and said, “I just hope that their need was greater than ours.”
I’m not a Catholic, but such was my introduction to the radical face of Catholic social teaching. In both their catechism, and one of Pope Paul’s encyclicals, what’s called the “universal destination of goods” – the purpose of possessions - is to serve the whole of humankind, and especially guests, the sick and the poor.
But where justice has failed, where desperation gnaws at the body and soul in the midst of plenty, formal Catholic teaching holds that “there is no theft”**, and that a person “has the right to procure for himself what he needs out of the riches of others.”***
Well! Where might that one leave Scottish retailing, with loses of fourteen million a year at automated check-outs alone?
Of course, there will be opportunist thefts, but ultimately, it’s all about relationship. If we use shops, then we’re part of them, and normally our duty will be not to steal but to strengthen right relationships. For myself, sometimes I’ll play “help the shop”, choosing for example to take the bashed can - because the shop helps us.
But the shops in turn must do their part for right relationships. That means ethical trading, paying tax and dignified employment. Then we move towards a world that rebuilds trust, one that reverses alienation at the checkout.
* The Scotsman “One in four Scottish shoppers are stealing from self-serve machines”, 18-2-19, https://goo.gl/79HYkC
** Catholic Catechism, 2401-2405 & especially 2408, https://goo.gl/tAoYTk
*** Gaudium et spes, Encyclical of Pope Paul, 1965, 69, https://goo.gl/i5tQFt
Today will be the day of the Division Bell, when politicians divide in the lobbies to determine amendments to Theresa May’s Brexit deal.
It’s not just one bell that summons MPs to vote, but near-on four hundred throughout the Palace of Westminster and even pubs and clubs nearby.
And it’s not just the Commons that’s divided over Brexit, but parties, constituencies, and many MPs are divided within themselves.
Its significance reminds me of the Bhagavad Gita, the most sacred text of Hinduism.
Here a mythical prince, Arjuna, stands in the middle of the greatest battlefield of all time. But the army that he faces is an army of his own nearest and dearest – fathers, uncles, brothers and friends.
He cries out to Krishna, the very incarnation of God, and complains that “life goes from my limbs, my great bow falls from my hands, [and] my mind is whirling and wandering.”
Mahatma Gandhi said that this is not about literal warfare. It’s about those situations in which we all find ourselves – whether Brexit’s division bells or more everyday affairs – in which we’re riven with anxiety at what can seem to be impossible decisions.
Where the resolution? The Gita’s answer lies in its very first line. “On the field of Truth, on the battlefield of life, what came to pass, Sanjaya…?”
What comes to pass in everyday events is nested in the wider passage of our lives, and that in turn is nested on the field of Truth, what Hindus call the Dharma – in Christian translation, “the way, the truth and the life”.
And Sanjaya - he was the eagle-eyed charioteer to the blind king, Dhrita-rashtra – showing us that political power, or the ego’s power, when on their own are always blind.
When the Division Bell sounds, whether over Brexit or our daily concerns - only that eagle-eyed fixation on a higher calling can help resolve relationships, upon the battlefield of life.
In a half an hour’s time, the European Court will give its final judgement on whether Article 50 can be withdrawn, should Parliament rethink Brexit after tomorrow’s vote.
Meanwhile, today is the shared 50th anniversary of the death of two of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century. The Swiss Protestant, Karl Barth, whose ideas softened Scottish Calvinism. And the American Catholic monk, Thomas Merton, who opened dialogues across divides in seeking peace on Earth.
Peace may be no easy task on this small corner of the Earth this week. Is there anything to learn from Barth and Merton?
Shaken by the two world wars that ravaged Europe, Barth said he decided for theology, “to find a better basis for my social action.”
Merton loved his thought, because it opened social action into deeper levels.
They both believed we cannot be the masters of our politics, if not connected to the very source of grace, a way of being human, that wells up from beyond our conscious ken.
Just months before their deaths, Merton wrote that 1968 had been “a beast of a year”. Vietnam was raging, Martin Luther King lay slaughtered; it felt like hope itself was running retrograde.
“Why?” he asked.
“Is the Christian message of love a pitiful delusion?”
Or can thrawn times encode prophetic meaning?
Can it be, as a Thai Buddhist monk once put it - that we open to the higher ways of love … only when we learn to sit within the tiger’s mouth?
“What use is that?” we might well ask.
Perhaps, to pray for those who harm us - to hold them in a place of shared humanity - leaves space between the tiger’s jaws for grace.
It frees us to confront life’s wrongs, yet not dehumanise the other. And thereby, not to take upon ourselves the likeness of the very things we may oppose.
There's a 1 minute video to illustrate this one - click here then click the play button - to see Norman Bissell of the Isle of Luing talking about their coastal defences.
Friday is Saint Andrew’s Day, a bank holiday in Scotland; a day when if so inclined, we can spare a thought about his message, that might be more contemporary than first meets the eye.
The mass migration of people has been in the news this week. Children from the migrant caravan, tear-gassed at the Mexican border with the US. Desperate people from the Middle East, crossing the English Channel in tiny boats.
The United Nations says that, more and more, climate change is driving poverty, war, and therefore migration from regions like sub-Saharan Africa. They estimate two hundred million people, displaced and on the move by 2050.
Such a contraction in living space is not just overseas. This week, a UK government report on dangerous global warming stated that, within the lifetime of the children born today, Scotland’s sea levels will rise by a metre.
It came viscerally home to me last weekend, when visiting the Isle of Luing near Oban.
There, the community trust showed me how they’ve bought up the mineral rights to an old slate quarry, and they’re dropping rocks along the shore to protect the village from a growing incidence of flooding.
So where does Saint Andrew fit into all of this?
In the story of the feeding of the five thousand, the other disciples fretted at the impossible cost of finding food for so many people.
It was Andrew who found the laddie with loaves and fishes.
You can read it as a miracle of magic, Jesus as a paranormal conjurer. Or you can read it as a miracle of grace, the common wealth of sharing.
Either way, Andrew the fisherman gave up chattering about the price of fish. He landed for them all a catch of kindness; and there we glimpse a patron saint who speaks into our times.
As the results come in from America’s mid-term elections, I think of Donald John Trump, where he’s come from and where he’s got to.
As the Stornoway Gazette headlined his inauguration: “A man sprung from the loins of a woman from Lewis has taken … control of the most powerful political office in the world.”
Meanwhile, a blockbuster novel by JD Vance called Hillbilly Elegy was widely seen as shedding light on the president’s grassroots voter base.
A base, Vance claims, that his own Scots-Irish heritage has significantly shaped. Yet a heritage that has in part withdrawn into itself. Rooted in the slave plantations, its churches heavy on the rhetoric, its sense of masculinity in crisis … and it passes on its isolation to its children.
When it comes to the American Dream, he concludes, “The demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us.”
Donald Trump’s mother, Mary Anne Macleod, emigrated in 1930 when she was still seventeen. It was the culmination of a terrible century.
Her ancestors had been evicted in the Clearances. Her childhood saw some one in six of the island’s young men killed in the Great War. Two hundred more perished as their homebound ship, the Iolaire, hit the rocks just four miles from her village.
Then there was the Spanish Flu, and the TB epidemic, and the loss of hope was such that in 1923 alone, a thousand of the island’s population of thirty thousand emigrated to America - mostly men of Mary Anne’s marriageable age range.
The bards tell that it deadened something in the soul. Perhaps it’s like when God said to Ezekiel, “The parents eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”
And yet, continued God, “No longer shall you [stay like this].”**
No longer should the demons of the lives we’ve left behind pursue the dreams, American or otherwise, of any one of us. Lest we forget.
* - JD Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, Collins, London, 2016, pp. 2-5.
** - Ezekiel 18:1-4. For background on Trump’s maternal psychohistory, see: https://goo.gl/NBp45W
There’s been outrage expressed at the pictures taken in Scotland by a self-proclaimed “hardcore professional huntress”, Larysa Switlyk from Florida.*
Calling herself a cross between a tomboy and a model, running a hunting fashion business, she poses with dead animals - guns and crossbows slung around her neck - saying that it’s all about empowering other women to unleash their potential.
The photo-shots taken during visits to Ardnamurchan and Islay, with stags, goats and even a freshly killed blackface ram, were unsettling for many.
Last Saturday was the close of the stag hunting season. With the guests who pay the wages gone away, the hind season opened. There’s no money to be made from that. It’s just the hard slog culling.
The Deer Commission of Scotland requires estates – whether privately or community owned - to keep the numbers down, to safeguard forestry and agriculture, and all of us from road accidents.
But it’s also animal welfare. A clean shot is a kindness compared to slow starvation or disease.
Neither does the tax payer pay. Deer management has to balance both ecology and the books. But in Scotland, most stalkers have an ethic.
As a one-time stalker’s pony boy, I think of Tommy, who’d spend all night out on the hill to track a wounded animal. Or Iain, who accords to every kill the respect he gives a funeral. Megan, who tweets thoughtful nature observations from the stalks she leads. Or Christopher, who’ll raise his favourite toast - “to the soul of the stag.”
A gamekeeper said to me: “This ‘hardcore’ hunting from America lowers the threshold of respect for animals.”
This is not about the Bambification of nature. This is about decorum, a quality of soul. We hurt ourselves if we treat killing lightly. We too are part of the natural ecology, and that’s the lesson from our finest stalkers – whose veneration for the deer, can edge towards the spiritual.
* Larysa Unleashed website - www.larysaunleashed.com
BBC report - https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-45977780
Here's how it was - as pony boy to Tommy Macrae, head stalker at Eishken on the Isle of Lewis,
September 1977 when I was 21. That was Sandy on whose back we'd bring the culled deer back to the larder.
It’s been a past seven days of hard issues that confront the world.
In the UK, the main political conference season drew to a close, with little resolution of the contentions raised by Brexit.
Meanwhile, hurricane Michael has barrelled through Florida, and across the world, questions are surging up around “toxic masculinity”, and what happens when we men – or any gender for that matter – leave in our psychology the deeper shadows unresolved.
What can we do, especially if we’re floundering amidst the torments of the human psyche in our times?
Recently, I hit upon a most peculiar story. If you can bear with me, it’s from the book of Numbers in the Bible.*
There’s poor old Moses, plodding on through the desert for forty years to reach the Promised Land, and his fellow Israelites just gripe and whinge that their food was better back as slaves in Egypt.
God, as it was interpreted, sends a plague of fiery serpents that start to bite and kill them. The people go to Moses for a fix, and Moses goes and has a word with God.
Make a fiery serpent, says God, and set it on a pole; and all who gaze upon it, will live.
So Moses makes his serpent out of gleaming bronze. He hoists it up on high, and all who look upon it, are healed.
A bonkers story? Perhaps. But what incredible psychology! The very symbol of the people’s inner turmoil - toxic when it lurked within the grass and crawled at the unconscious level - became a power for healing when raised into the light consciousness, and faced for what it is.
We too can work to bring our shadow sides to consciousness. We too – as individuals and as nations - can put our brazen serpents onto poles.
Gaze, and see the healing power, as venom turns to balm.
* - Numbers 21:4-9
According to the charity, Cancer Research UK, obesity is set to overtake smoking as the biggest up and coming preventable cause of cancer amongst women.
How we eat is linked to what we’re used to, and in the past we’d be perhaps adapted to the balance and stability of what our natural environments provided.
The story’s told where I grew up, that Donald was the keeper on the big estate. At the end of many year’s of service, the laird said: “To thank you, Donald, I’m going to send you off on holiday - to the best hotel in London.
“But mind, it’s awfully expensive. Do be careful with your choices from the menu.”
A fortnight later, home he comes. “I did exactly as you said, Your Lordship.
“Every day, I ordered just the same as what we eat back here: salmon, venison and lobsters.”
At least his diet wouldn’t have piled on the pounds!
But change the balance of what’s available – bring into Donald’s life the sugared drinks, the two-for-one deals and the high carbohydrate convenience foods - and soon he’d be a-huffing and a-puffing to make it up the hills.
How we eat is shaped by our relationships. Each Thursday night, the GalGael Trust in Govan provides a community meal in its boatbuilding workshop. It’s run by volunteer cooks who conjure up a wholesome fare and take great pride in looking out for everyone.
Blair Hamilton who’s one of these was saying to me yesterday: “When I cook for myself at home, it’s butter, cream and all of that. But not when cooking for GalGael! There, I try to think of five of fruit and veg a day. True that it’s a wee bit more expensive, but we take care of one another.”
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Abel asked of Cain in Biblical times, in a murderous dispute sparked off by food. The research published this week on cancer and obesity suggests it can be helpful if we are.
Tomorrow sees the completion of a three day summit between the presidents of North and South Korea, an event that, for the first time in ten years, involves a leader from the South, President Moon Jae-in, visiting the North Korean capital.
It’s to try and resolve a division that dates back to the Cold War, much the same as Germany got split between the East and West.
Sigmund Freud observed that splits can be the greatest when we share the most in common. He wrote about “the narcissism of small differences” – the self-obsession that so easily sets up boundaries where there need be none.
It’s not hard to project our negativity outwards and demonise the other, but what about the healing of divisions? Moon Jae-in’s quest in North Korea is being called a mediation bid. And could it be, I wonder, that there’s more than just power politics at play?
Back in March, I was astonished to see the president photographed in a Korean newspaper reading a book called Healing the Heart of Democracy, by Parker Palmer, an American Quaker activist and educator.*
Palmer draws attention to the gap between the realities and the myths that we build up of one another. Realities that could humanise. But myths that feed “the politics of rage”, and when their own foundations crack, expose a “politics of the brokenhearted.”
Whether as nations or as individuals, our capacity to “get well”, becomes our capacity to “get real”.
Our call, is to unclench the fist around the wounded human heart. To see dissolved our narcissism of small differences. To cultivate a shared humanity, so that we learn to live and let live while looking out for one another.
The healing of our politics, says Parker Palmer, is to make a “new normal” of such “habits of the heart”. That, in North and South Korea. That too, much closer home to home.
Parker J. Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2011.
(Listen here, view pictures here)
Today, we remember VJ Day – Victory over Japan in the Second World War - when Emperor Hirohirto surrendered in the face of what he rightly described as “a new and most cruel bomb.”
Amongst the many millions who perished in the war had been thousands of allied prisoners, who were denied the basic safeguards of the Hague Conventions.
Such trauma carries down through time. My Uncle Peter was a man who strangely lacked confidence. If going out in the car, he’d take a long way round to avoid the hills; and my Auntie Ann said he couldn’t eat fried food, because his stomach had been damaged by starvation in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.
Nuclear weapons brought the war to an end, but where do they leave our future? Even the military – often, especially military commanders - know how such weapons weigh upon the soul.
At the Kitsap-Bangor naval base outside Seattle, a blackened stone plinth stands in the garden of the Ground Zero peace centre. It used to carry a Buddha and the Cross. One night, a couple of drunk marines came in and burned them down.
“What do you make of that?” I asked a yellow-robed monk of a Japanese Buddhist order.
“I truly believe,” he said, “the power of light can come from enduring the burning.”
War burns the world, the world burns on, is there any power to bring it to an end?
Salvador Dali’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross hangs in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove.
Painted during his “atomic period”, it shows the cosmic Christ suspended over the world; as Dali saw it, the power that sustains the atom to its very nucleus.
Today is VJ Day. I think of veterans like Uncle Peter, of Trident submariners I have known, and of peace protestors like the monk.
“I truly believe the power of light can come from enduring the burning.”
What a week in politics this past week has been, with constitutional crises in Britain over Brexit, and in America over Donald Trump. I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling tossed in the turmoil of it all.
With that in mind, you’d hardly think to calm the mind with a reflection on Glasgow’s St Enoch Square. Or rather, a musing on the saint said to be buried in that busy place.
For today in the religious calendar is Enoch’s feast day. Many assume that the saint was a man, but as the historian of Glasgow Elspeth King points out, Enoch was a woman, whose name had shifted down through time.
Thaney, the earliest version of her name, morphed to Tenew, then eventually to today’s Enoch.*
Moreover, she was, as King puts it, “Scotland’s first recorded rape victim, battered woman and unmarried mother,” having suffered at the hands of a Welsh warrior Prince.
A manuscript in the British Library tells that on finding she was pregnant, her father had her tossed from off the cliffs of Traprain Law in East Lothian.
But she survived, and was set adrift in a coracle. The tiny boat drifted across the Forth to Culross Abbey in Fife.
Rescued by the monks, the son to whom she gave birth was named Kentigern, later changed to Mungo, which means “my dear one”. And Mungo is the patron saint of Glasgow, “the dear green place”.
Walking over Enoch’s Square, thinking of our agitated times, my mind turns to she whose bones rest there.
In the form of Tenew, her name to me suggests tenacity. Today’s feast day reminds that from enduring suffering, an inner strength can issue forth.
A strength that once gave birth … to “my dear one”.
* “What’s in a Name? Thaney or Enoch”, The Innes Review, 51:1, 2000, pp. 80-83.
Twenty-five years ago, the Assynt Crofters’ Trust took back ownership of the land of their ancestors - an event which is being commemorated all next week.
It opened doors on modern Scottish land reform, and in this past month alone we’ve seen two more buyouts - on the Isle of Ulva in the west, and at Garbh Allt on the east coast. It brings the total under community control to more than half a million acres, nearly 3% of our land area.
But what are the drivers of such a movement? At one level self-governance is practical. Secure tenancies and low cost housing plots for the young. New business opportunities. Renewable energy, local food production and ecotourism, to name a few.
But at a deeper level for some, these land trusts restore the very meaning of community, the meaning of neighbourliness itself and that, reaching all the way through to the spiritual.
In pointing to Assynt as a spur for new legislation, a 1997 report of the Free Church of Scotland said, “A Biblical perspective would suggest that rural land should cease to be treated as a commodity and should be regarded as a trust.”*
This coming Sunday, near the start of its 25th anniversary celebrations, the Assynt Crofters will host an interdenominational service, led by the former superintendent of the Fishermen’s Mission. Historically, that’s an organisation that has pulled people together, standing with them through their times of tragedy and trouble.
It gets me asking, “Who is our neighbour? And who might come up in the next trawl of the net?”
These questions aren’t just for our rural settlements. The stainless steel outer doors of St Andrew’s House in Edinburgh, are inscribed with the text: “I will make you fishers of men.”
There’s the thought that Assynt’s celebration stirs in me. How best to be a Scotland of community, that’s welcoming for all?
* - The Land Problem, Free Church of Scotland, 1997, http://www.caledonia.org.uk/land/documents/land-problem.doc
We’re back into the May holiday season, and many of us will be heading for the countryside. But for me, a press report this week brought to mind a curious memory.
It was in the mid 1960s. We were in the class of a Miss Graham in Leurbost school on the Isle of Lewis. Outside, the Marsh Marigolds would have been opening, and the Ladysmock and Ragged Robin hotly in pursuit.
Miss Graham was telling us about children in Glasgow who had never seen such flowers, or cows and sheep, or oceans wide.
We were incredulous, and the feeling came back on me this week when I read of a head teacher in the east end of the city repeating the same sentiments - half a century down the line.
According to Nancy Cluny of Dalmarnock Primary School, many of her pupils from deprived backgrounds have never seen a farm, or climbed a mountain or thrown stones in the river.*
And it’s true. I’m involved with a group that reconnects urban people with the countryside.
I think of Kellyanne, who was maybe twenty the first time she caught sight of Loch Lomond from our minibus, and how she just burst into tears. Or Joe, a grown man excited that our trip to Iona was his first time on a Scottish island. And young Dale, who couldn’t get over how clear the ocean waters were.
People say that you can’t eat natural beauty, but the life of the soul doesn’t thrive on bread alone. In the gospels, Jesus was always going between the towns and the wild places to get a bit of peace. The Buddha found enlightenment beneath a tree. The Qu’ran says that the Earth is filled with beauty, to reveal the heavenly goodness.**
That’s why a holiday, like this weekend, was once a holy day. To remind us of the loveliness of life. To be enjoyed not only by the few, but by us all.
* The Herald, 3 May 2018, https://goo.gl/f8Bkyx ** The Qu’ran, Qaf 50:7-8 and Yusuf Ali commentary
The Met Office are warning that a cold spell is on its way, and it got me thinking of the times as a boy on Lewis, when the lochs froze over.
There was one near our house – Loch Thobhta Bridein, it means “The Loch of Bridgit’s Ruin” - and the Achmore road runs higher up above it.
One winter’s day, I was going along with my father in the car. We were looking down and out across its frozen surface that glimmered with a peppering of frost.
I can’t remember what he said, perhaps by way of warning; but I remember vividly that some parts of the ice showed circles of a darker shading.
Here the springs that partly fed the loch were plain to see. Their warmer waters rose and made the ice above them - perilously thin.
I was reminded of this recently by an old clipping from the Stornoway Gazette. It told a story of three island boys, and the first had gone out on a frozen loch, and fallen through.
The second, fired with courage from his heart, went charging to the rescue; but he too fell through.
The third, applied his head. He used all his strength, and broke a channel through the ice, and led them back to safety.
I thought about that boy this week, when a UN official said that the humanitarian plight of Syria, is “beyond imagination”.
No-one has a short term answer to Syria, where good folks are falling through the thin ice of civility. But maybe there’s a longer term way forward.
That island boy combined what the Scottish thinker Patrick Geddes spoke of, as “the three H’s”. Courage of the heart. Clear thinking of the head. And muscle of the hands.
Each one of us can carve out channels where we stand - with heart, and head, and hand. Then - perhaps and only then - we build community; and what it takes to start to lead the world to safety.
At this time of year I love to see the farmers bringing in their harvest, our food to see us through the coming year. But elsewhere in the world, nature’s harvest has a bitter sting.
Already, by Tuesday this week, Hurricane Irma had been declared the most powerful Atlantic storm ever recorded.* Meanwhile, it was reported that across the world, extreme weather events have become four times more frequent than in 1970.** Scientists attribute this to global warming that is pumping excessive energy and moisture into our weather systems.***
Only the scale of ecological destruction is new today. Nearly three thousand years ago, the Hebrew writers could already read its roots in human hubris, greed and violence.
As the prophet Isaiah said: “The world mourns and withers, the haughty people have become sick, the earth lies polluted by its inhabitants.”****
Archaeology confirms that what was once the Fertile Crescent, the Garden of Eden, became the deserts of Egypt and Iraq.
But does it have to keep on getting worse? Imagine a world that shifts from competitive consumerism, to dignified sufficiency in life. From dumping waste, to an economy with recycling built-in. From filthy energy sources, to ones that are clean and conserving. From ecocide, to ecological regeneration.
Imagine a world that moves from ways that draw down violence on the Earth, to ways that beat out ploughshares from our bygone swords.
That world is fast becoming possible. The best of science and commerce mostly has the hardware. But we must be the software.
Could we perhaps reprogram to the rhythms of nature? If so, the tail of Hurricane Irma might set the seeds to reap a different harvest.
*** Isaiah 24:4-13, paraphrased from mixed translations.
It’s the weekend coming up, and many are away on holidays.
In medieval times, the people of the Isle of Lewis where I grew up wouldn’t fly to Lanzarote on holiday. They’d make a pilgrimage to Ness, right in the north of the island.
They say the further north you go, the holier it gets, and when the pilgrims came in sight of St Moluag’s “temple” as it’s called, they’d all drop to their knees in veneration.
According to some reports, they’d later sacrifice a cup of ale to their sea god, Shony, followed by a night of drunken revelry. Medieval pilgrimages, it seems, had quite a bit more in common than you’d first think with a certain kind of package holiday today.
Come the sixteenth century, Martin Luther said that most pilgrimages should be abolished. They encouraged “a vagabond life”. They kept the common people off their work. Worst of all, they provided the occasion for “countless causes of sin.”
Today, however, there’s a growing sense we took the prohibition much too far. In May, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland formally rehabilitated pilgrimage, and currently there’s half a dozen ancient routes being restored, from as far apart as the Borders and Orkney.
Next month I’ll be taking a group of forty American visitors on a mini pilgrimage to Ness, and it’s really been quite wonderful the way that people in the local churches have opened out the warmest welcome.
As an old woman on the island told me, these days “everybody is too busy, and too noisy.” But a pilgrimage, is a holiday with inner intent. By making time, and seeking places of retreat, the “still small voice”* within can find a better chance of being heard.
And so, enjoy your weekend or your holiday, if you’re having one - with or without the sacrifice to Shony.
* 1 Kings 19:12, KJV
It was a century ago this week that a young soldier, the poet Wilfred Owen, arrived off the train at Edinburgh. Fresh from the Western Front, he’d come to be treated for what was then called “shell shock” at the Craiglockhart War Hospital.
This past Monday, as part of a continuing programme called Wilfred Owen’s Edinburgh, his arrival was re-enacted in period costume. Imagine the young man’s state of mind, having been mortared and concussed in the trenches of the First World War. His poem, Six O’Clock in Princes Street, offers us a glimpse:
Or be you in the gutter where you stand,
Pale rain-flawed phantom of the place,
With news of all the nations in your hand,
And all their sorrows in your face.
At Craiglockhart, Owen and his fellow poet, Siegfried Sassoon, came under the pioneering care of the hospital’s physicians, Captains Brock and Rivers.
Up until then, “shell shock” could be treated as cowardice. Soldiers could even be executed. But Brock and Rivers paved the way for understanding post traumatic stress disorder. Their legacy endures today at Edinburgh’s Rivers Centre, which gives specialist help to the victims of child abuse, rape, disasters and torture.
Post traumatic stress occurs when outer world realities get just too awful for the inner world to bear. For trauma is a wounding of the psyche, as if the soul itself recoils and disconnects the flow between the inner and the outer life. As Captain Brock wrote to Sigmund Freud: “the ordinary progress of the individual’s life appeared to halt.”*
But poetry – even “in the gutter where you stand,/ With news of all the nations in your hand” – poetry, as the Craiglockhart war poets showed us, is a language that can heal the soul - and even start to reconnect a broken world.
* See sources and discussion in my Poacher’s Pilgrimage (Birlinn Books), pp. 167-169.
Across rural Scotland, the lambing season has just ended. For the past couple of months, there’s been men and women out till after dark, and rising well before the sun, to help their sheep in labour.
These midwives of the fields are hefted, or bonded, to their flocks just as much as sheep are hefted to the hill. That faithfulness, that interdependent relationship, is why Jesus loved the image of the Good Shepherd.
As one of the stories goes, when he found the lost sheep, “he laid it on his shoulders - rejoicing.”*
These days, much of farming as a way of life goes on beneath the radar of the urban world. The rest of us perhaps turn up from cities in our cars to exercise our dogs. We open the doors amidst green fields. And wham!
Whoever would have thought that the beloved family mutt still had the killer instincts of the wolf.
A recent report said that 15,000 sheep in the UK are lost each year to dogs getting out of control.**
It can happen so very easily, especially given disconnects between the town and countryside. By way of personal example, my father was a doctor, and in 1960 we moved from a mainland town to the Isle of Lewis. We loved Bliss, our pet Alsatian, but shortly after settling in she took off one day and savaged seven sheep.
Dad had to take his rifle and do what he had to do. When the crofters turned up … they were just so lovely about it. They said, “Well doctor, maybe it was another Alsatian…” But in those days, the island only had one Alsatian. And then they joined in his grief, and they helped him to bury her.
The other side of that grief, as one farmer tweeted this week, is that: “I feel sick. I give up. I haven’t finished counting the dead yet. You’ve broken me.”***
The city and the countryside both belong to our ecology. The world of living things is fragile in its balances, but all of us can try to be good shepherds.
* Gospel of Saint Luke, 15:3-7, https://goo.gl/KoKcxb
An attack like that on Westminster this week can leave folks feeling numbed. It’s as if the senselessness of violence renders us too senseless. How might we respond, if not involved directly?
My thoughts were drawn to a strange experience of Richard Wilhelm, a German scholar and missionary. In China during the 1920s, he was translating ancient texts about the Tao. That’s a Chinese philosophy of the divine, of the ultimate wholeness and intimate interconnection of all things.
In the province where he worked, there came a terrible drought. The grass was scorched, the animals were failing, and the people feared that they’d be next. In desperation, they called on prayers from the Protestant missionaries, and then the Catholic missionaries, and then the Taoist and Confucian priests. But no rain came.
As a last resort, they called in the Rain Maker. He was a wizened little old man from the neighbouring province.
“What do you need,” they asked.
“I just need a hut to go and sit,” he said. And after three days, it rained.
The Chinese peasants soon resumed their normal lives, but Richard Wilhelm being - not just any old scholar, but a German scholar – wanted to know what the little old man had done.
“But I did nothing,” said the Rain Maker.
“Oh come on,” said Wilhelm. “Was it magic spells, or did you just hit it lucky that you only had to wait three days?”
“Neither,” he replied. “It’s like this. When I was in my home province, my spirit was in the Tao. But when I got to this province, I found that I was no longer in the Tao. So I went and sat in the hut, and when my spirit came back into the divine harmony, the rain began to fall.”
We can all feel powerless, but as the Psalms have it, “Be still, and know that I am God.”
After the scorched earth senselessness of violence, perhaps that is how fresh rain restores the flow of life.
(My source of this story is Meredith Sabini’s anthology, The Earth has a Soul: C.G. Jung on Nature, Technology & Modern Life, North Atlantic Books, California, 2008, pp. 211-14. I have dramatised the prose for radio.)
This week has been billed as the “last stand” by the Great Sioux Nation in America.* For the past year, the tribe at Standing Rock have spearheaded a battle against companies that want to build a thousand-mile-plus pipeline through US military owned land, extracting half a million barrels of oil a day from the shale rocks of North Dakota.
One of the last things that President Obama did in office, was to block its route through waters, lands and sites held sacred by the Sioux. But one of the first acts of President Trump, was to reverse that decision. Drilling operations could now start at any hour, and for the Sioux, it’s back to the courts and to gearing up the protests.
But what’s been striking, is that these have fought force not with force in kind, but mainly with spiritual activism. The “weapons” used have been inner more than outer. As the elders say: “Our youth are watching and remember the faces of the officers that assaulted them. They pray for them.”
Supporters turn up, expecting to shout and battle with the police; but instead, they’re asked to stand all day and simply pray.
“What is the point of prayer?” many ask. Well, it got to a former soldier, Wes Clark Jr. He is the son of General Wesley Clark, who rose to fame in the Vietnam war. In December, Wes Junior led 2,000 of his fellow US Army veterans to form a human shield at Standing Rock, joining in the prayers, spiritually confronting the police and bulldozers.
In America, you don’t mess with veterans, and as this drama unfolded, Obama signed his order.
Prayer, in any situation, works upon an inner battlefield. That inner realm is what shapes our resultant outer actions. It is the long front on which opposing forces are aligned in the big picture of our lives - longer than any pipeline running through the courts – a front that’s only ever fully seen, from a God’s-eye view.
Last week’s announcement by the Department of Work and Pensions, that half of Glasgow’s job centres might close, has raised anxiety amongst the claimants of benefits.
They’re worried that longer journey times for job search appointments might lead to sanctioning – or being punished - for little things, like when buses don’t turn up on time, or there’s a crisis in childcare.
Whether or not the benefits system functions in the way we’d like to think it does, is one thing; but the deeper issue is the changing structure of work itself, and the very need for benefits.
These days, supermarket checkouts are automated, and another decade will probably see many jobs behind the wheel going, as driverless vehicles make their debut. It’s therefore time to rethink work, and how wealth can be shared out for the wellbeing of all.
Until now, ideas like a citizen’s income, or a basic income for all, have been fringe notions.
But that seems to be changing. This week, the London School of Economics announced a major new report, calling on governments to “revolutionise how we think about human priorities.”
Lord Richard Layard, an Emeritus Professor of Economics, said the report invites, “a new role for the state – not ‘wealth creation’ but ‘wellbeing creation’.”
It sounds as if economics is finally catching up with spiritual teaching.
I think of Martha in Luke’s gospel, grumpily slaving away in the kitchen, and Jesus making out that it was perfectly cool for her sister, Mary, just to chill out.
“Martha, Martha,” he said. “You are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed…. Mary has chosen what is better.”*
Technology can potentially free us for what’s better. The challenge is to create work that is of service to each other. Work that answers to our needs for friendship, community and space for recreation. Work that even heals the broken ecology of this Earth, and makes love visible.
* - Luke 10:38-42
Last night was a bit of a let down for watchers of the sky across many parts of Scotland. It was billed to be the night of the supermoon. That time, once in a generation, when the moon comes close enough to be bigger and brighter than we’ve mostly ever experienced.
But like in politics, with Harold Macmillian’s “events, dear boy, events”, the weather intervened. You’d have known the moon was out there, somewhere; but unless you were lucky enough to get a transient break in the cloud cover, your horizons would have had to shrink back to the visible.
Perhaps it’s like life itself. We’re in a time of great upheavals, of crushing inequalities, but we differ greatly in what we can see, and some might even give up looking.
Information technology, and with it, the loss of filters on what counts as news, can be a liberation in many ways. But a flipside, is we’ve narrowed down the world we listen to. On the internet, news is tailored to our tastes, partly with and partly without our knowing. We follow and unfollow, but in so doing, we so easily find ourselves in echo chambers.
Such social stratification sets us out of touch with wider realities. Our eyes get so accustomed to the glare, that we lose the ability to see by gentle moonlight. Even when the supermoon comes out, the clouds around have thickened.
Where does all this leave us? In what ways can we listen out more deeply? In the Quaker tradition, you can find three levels of listening.
There’s the listening to the “me”, in being clear about our own thoughts and feelings.
There’s the listening to the “we”, in seeking out the point of view of others.
But deepest of all, there’s the listening to the underlying Spirit – to the movement of the spirit that is life itself.
Said the great Welsh poet, R.S. Thomas: “He is such a fast / God, always before us and / leaving as we arrive.”
Perhaps that’s the fleetness and the vision that we need today, if we’re to catch the supermoon of life.
Halloween approaches, and I was thrilled to discover that BBC radio this week aired a dramatisation of Mary Rose, J.M. Barrie’s so-called “ghost play”.*
It’s the story of a little girl, growing up in the First World War, who gets spirited away by the faeries while her parents were on a fishing holiday in North Harris. She spends the rest of her life straddled between this world, and another.
Hitchcock had always wanted to make Mary Rose into a movie. He even got as far as visiting Skye in 1963 to search for a location, but was stopped by film executives, who thought that these “twilight-zone stories” were “too irrational” for modern audiences.**
But Barrie’s ghosts and faeries were far more than Halloween thrills. This son of Free Church parents mined folklore as a means to reveal the effects of war on children’s minds.
And why? Because he foresaw that if the lessons of the Great War were not learned, another would surely follow it some twenty-five years later.
In 1923 he delivered his Rectorial address at St Andrew’s University. You too, he warned the students, risk “doddering down some brimstone path.”
“By the time the next eruption comes it may be you who are responsible for it and your sons who are in the lava.”
And the remedy – to Halloween spectres, that haunt our own tomorrow’s world?
“Courage is the thing,” he said. “All goes if courage goes.”
And courage, as he saw it, is God’s gift through which we might be spared from evermore repeating the past.
As Halloween approaches, enjoy the shrieks and ghouls, the lanterns and the toffee apples.
But if you happen to catch Mary Rose on Listen Again, remember what this great Scots playwright did. He sought to avert real-life horror. He sought to save the world for children and for other living things.
* BBC Radio 3, Drama on 3, 23 Oct 2016. Listen Again http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0801l4v
** Research detailed in my Poacher’s Pilgrimage: an Island Journey, Birlinn, 2016, chapters 7 &12
In the past week we’ve heard much in the news about - evil. In America, the word’s been liberally thrown around at both presidential candidates.
Meanwhile, the actor Will Smith, has been discussing his part in the superhero movie, Suicide Squad, which goes on release tomorrow.
He says he wanted to explore redemption, and specifically, the idea that while the merely bad are redeemable, the evil are not.
Smith thereby feeds the notion of evil as an absolute. This allows for its personification - whether as the Devil, or as archetypal villains in comic strips and movies.
But are such absolutes the most wholesome way to make sense of suffering in the world?
It was the American writer, James Baldwin, who suggested that: “one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”
We sideline the pain of spiritual growth when we reduce it to questions like: If there’s a God, how can “He” allow evil?
Imagine how it would be if every time some human folly (or even cruelty) were about to happen, the Great Cosmic Health and Safety Officer zapped it from on high.
We’d never get to feel the pain of others, or of ourselves. We’d remain in spiritual infancy, devoid of empathy, unexercised by the evils of the world.
For love to be free, evil has to be an option.
Therefore, said Saint Silouan of Athos, “Keep your soul in hell and do not despair.”*
I think that what he’s saying is: fully face the brokenness of the world, but never forget that God’s not sleeping.
It’s a reminder of hope, and of deeper processes at work that might transcend our conscious ken. A reminder, too, that nothing, and no-one, is ever beyond redemption.
* - Paul Evdokimov, In the World, of the Church: a Paul Evdokimov Reader, St Vladimir's Seminary Press, NY, 2001, p. 193.
The publication yesterday of the Commons’ Report into the collapse of BHS reveals that it wasn’t just the Napoleonic leadership of Sir Philip Green that was to blame.
A whole web of top companies in law, accountancy and banking had been complicit, each passing the buck to an extent that, as the report puts it, “has at times resembled a circular firing squad.”
“This,” it roundly concluded, “is the unacceptable face of capitalism.”
But if that’s so, what might be the acceptable face of doing business?
We become participants in the capitalist mindset whenever we drive up the level of competition; demanding lower prices for goods and services in preference to higher social and environmental standards.
Defenders of the system say it’s just human nature. Without such competition, we’d get lazy and inefficient.
But is there any alternative to dog-eat-dog as the best way to organise an economy? The Bible seems to think so. It recognises that economic systems inevitably become corrupt in human hands.
Every so often a Jubilee is therefore needed – a pressing of the reset button - to restore right relationships between people, and with the natural environment.
In effect, the Select Committee’s report on BHS is urging just such a reset for today.
But can competition be reconciled with cooperation? Is it possible for our values to be our value? Well, some years ago I was driving a French banker round the single track roads of the Isle of Harris.
As we debated that very question, a car approached from the opposite direction. In the island’s courteous way, both our vehicles pulled in to the nearest lay-bye, from where we each played the usual game of flashing the other to come on.
“There you go,” I said to my friend, as we both laughed with delight. “This is the island where they compete to cooperate.”
In the calendar of the Anglican church, today remembers a pioneering woman theologian, Evelyn Underhill, who died in 1941 and whose book about mystical religion remains a classic.
I thought about her in the aftermath of the Orlando massacre, of which the victim death toll now stands at forty-nine. Underhill distinguished sharply between living out of the dictates of religious law, and living out of the heart.
“Lots of us,” she wrote, “ manage to exist for years without ever sinning against society, but we sin against loveliness every hour of the day.”*
This struck a chord in me, as it emerged that the Orlando gunman’s father holds that: God will punish the gays.** That might be a Muslim homophobia, but think how easily such violence in America could equally have come out of a Christian homophobia.
Early parts of the Old Testament do teach authoritarian religion, but Jesus Christ never said a thing about homosexuality.
Some argue that Paul carried forward the Old Testament law into the New Testament. But if so, his authority was the Council of Jerusalem.***
That, in the same breath, also forbade Christians from eating animal products made from blood; yet in recent church debates, although we’ve heard much about Paul’s views on sexuality, we’ve heard no condemnation of sinners who eat black pudding.
When it comes to judging others, Jesus simply said: “Judge not….”
That’s why Orlando, as an attack on the LGBT community, made me feel especially uncomfortable. The killer claimed to be a Moslem, but it rebukes us all if we demonise others, or just stay comfortably silent while others get on with the judging.
True religion, as Evelyn Underhill taught, should never lead to judgement and its violence. True religion points towards the loveliness of God.
* Evelyn Underhill, The Grey World, 1904, https://goo.gl/VslB0D Her Mysticism was published in 1911.
* * Paraphrased from report in The Herald: http://goo.gl/tWC2pe
*** The Council of Jerusalem and Paul’s part as messenger: Acts 15: 19-29; cf. Leviticus 3:17; 17:10-16.
It’s back from the holiday weekend, and straight into the frenzy of the elections.
Politicians will be parading in their full charismatic splendour to attract our votes. And it’s that question of charisma – where it comes from, and what it serves – that’s on my mind in a week that will also be marked by a funeral: that of the great American anti-war activist and Jesuit priest, Fr Daniel Berrigan.
Large parts of Berrigan’s life were spent inside federal jails. During the Vietnam war, he and others concocted home made napalm, and used it to burn government draft records for calling up the soldiers.
“Our apologies, good friends,” he later wrote, “for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children.”
In 2003 I was on a speaking tour in America, and my host took me to meet the man.
By then this turbulent priest was in his eighties, and I was puzzled by a notice on the door of his tiny New York flat. It was a quote from the artist, Jenny Holzer; words that might speak to many of our Scottish political servants this week, because it said: “Lack of charisma can be fatal.”
It took me some years to realise that Daniel Berrigan was not echoing the word, charisma, in its corrupted sense - that of the cult of celebrity for its own sake. Instead, he meant its original New Testament sense - where charisms are no less than the gifts of the Spirit of God.
That’s why “Lack of charisma can be fatal”. If we don’t pay heed to life’s deeper callings, if we don’t reach out to one another from a place that’s beyond the hollow emptiness of mere ego concerns, then we become spiritually dead.
Politicians mostly try to offer what they think voters are asking for. Perhaps in the midst of all the debate this week, they and voters alike could think about a deeper understanding of charisma - and how best the gift of power can be used.
Thought for the Day – c. 0723, 6 April 2016 - BBC Radio Scotland
from Alastair McIntosh, a Quaker, author and independent scholar
It says something about the interest in the Scottish writer, J.M. Barrie, that yesterday, a statue of his character, Peter Pan, was sold for sixty thousand pounds at Scotland’s oldest auction house.
Critics dismiss Barrie as a “kailyard” writer – a purveyor of couthy sentimentalism – but that opinion wasn’t shared by R.D.S. Jack when he was professor of literature at Edinburgh University; and I too have recently been in pursuit of Barrie’s hidden depths while writing about a fishing trip, that he made to the Isle of Harris in 1912.
There, an island on Loch Voshimid, inspired him with his 1920 play, called Mary Rose.
Like Peter Pan, it draws on faerie legends, but uses them profoundly to explore the effects, on a little girl’s mind, of living through a time of war.
It surprised me to find out that Barrie’s parents in Kirriemuir were devout members of the Free Church of Scotland. But there might lie a key, for as a boy, he must have sat through many sermons on the theme: “Except ye become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”*
I thought of this awhile back, when I took my son, Adam, to shake the hand of old Ceiteag Maclennan - a remarkable Free Church woman at Seaforth Head on the Isle of Lewis.
It was shortly before she died, and the first thing she did as he came in the door was to grab his arm, and say: “Adam - when you get to my age, everything that you’ve got, and everything that you are, starts to be stripped away.
“But it’s all right! We came into this world as little babies, and as the Bible says, that’s how we must go out again - if we are to enter, the kingdom of God.”
There’s the depth of a religious culture out of which great writers like J.M. Barrie have emerged - and whoever said religion’s just a pack of faerie tales?**
* Matthew 18:3, KJV.
** (The Barrie and Mary Rose connection with war trauma, as well as more stories about Ceiteag, are themes covered in Poacher's Pilgrimage: an Island Journey, due in June 2016 from Birlinn)
It’s rare to see key figures from across Scotland’s political spectrum unite behind the leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, but there’s been widespread acclaim for Ruth Davidson’s description of Westminster’s treatment of the low paid, as - “not acceptable”.
But, as the poor get further squeezed to pay for a banking crisis caused mainly by the rich, it isn’t just tax credits, vigorously debated yesterday in the House of Lords, that’s sending up the fireworks of austerity.
Let me give an example of what it’s like at Ground Zero. My wife, Vérène, does team leadership work with priority area parishes of the Church of Scotland. She wanted to get a better understanding of their ministry, so these past few Sundays, we’ve temporary taken leave of our Quaker meeting. We’ve engaged, instead, in the dynamic new sport - of church surfing.
The fact is, it’s often Presbyterian churches, and the Roman Catholic chapel round the corner, that are just about the only long-term anchor points in many poor communities.
Our surfing’s introduced us to amazing unsung heroes. This week, in north-east Glasgow, I chatted with a couple whose whole thing is to collect, and deliver, food to the hungry. It’s the feeding of the five thousand, and in the past two years, they’ve made delivery runs of thirty thousand pounds’ worth of food, every can and bag of it donated in person by folks mostly from within the parish.
They told me that the single biggest driving factor of such hunger, is mental health. People are simply not coping, as they have to jump through complex hoops imposed these days by the benefits office. Typically they miss an appointment, get “sanctioned” (as the system calls punishment), and find themselves left high and dry.
“Give us this day our daily bread”: and who’d ever have thought those words would have returned to challenge us, in the Scotland of today?
International development aid is under scrutiny – whether at the recent United Nations summit, or as we try to figure out how best to help with the refugee crisis.
It was commendable when the present government committed Britain to meeting the UN target of giving 0.7 of one per cent of GDP. However, instead of finding new money to help Syrian refugees, it’s now considering restructuring the aid budget, so that more of it can be spent within this country.
While such a shift may ease the symptoms, it neglects the roots. But what are those roots? This coming Saturday will see the international development charity, Christian Aid, hold a major conference in Edinburgh to mark its 70th anniversary.
The theme is “Many Mountains to Climb”, for while we may have reached the foothills of justice between nations, there’s still a long slog to the summit.
I suppose its understandable that government aid will always be steered by a political compass, but what’s distinctive about an agency like Christian Aid, is that its compass is also spiritual.
Mother Theresa used to say gifts are only true when given from the place of love. Love means that we touch and are touched by the sanctity of one another. It re-positions charity from the realm of crumbs from the tables of the rich, to the realm of relationships, where we discover ourselves to be held in the hand of something greater than ourselves.
As Christian Aid celebrates its 70th birthday, it knows that the roots of poverty are not just political, economic or environmental. The deepest roots are also spiritual, those that tighten round the shrunken human heart.
True “development” is therefore a de-envelope-ment. The word means to unfold – as when opening out an envelope. That’s the gift that comes from out the place of love, the gift of letting go to what it means to become more fully human
As tragic pictures in some of this morning’s newspapers confirm, there’s been a new turn in the refugee crisis this past week. Across Europe, we’ve seen a growing acceptance that nobody takes their children to sea in a rickety boat, unless it’s more dangerous to remain on land.
Earlier this week, Germany’s Angela Merkel took an almost prophetic stand when she warned that, “If Europe fails on the question of refugees, its close connection with universal civil rights will be destroyed.”
Germany expects to take in eight hundred thousand asylum seekers this year. It’s led to Syrians calling Mrs Merkel, the “Compassionate Mother”, and I wonder how many of our politicians could merit such an accolade?
It’s becoming evident that it’s one thing to drop bombs on the world’s trouble spots, but quite another to pick up the human tragedies. To do so challenges the charity and humanity of every one of us.
If it’s not too trite a comparison, this summer my wife and I have had a curious but instructive “refugee” experience, of sorts. A stray cat turned up at our door. She meowed and meowed for weeks and just wouldn’t go away.
Why us? Why at our door? She didn’t seem very hungry, but then an old woman told me: “You know, cats love people; and if she’s not hungry for food, she’ll be hungry for affection.”
Vérène and I scoured the lost cat websites. We took her to the vet, hoping she’d be tagged with a microchip, but no joy. Eventually – well – suffice to say that the glazier’s coming next week to fit the cat flap. Truth be told, we’re loving having her around.
Back to people, and St Paul looked to a time when we’d no longer be “foreigners and strangers” to one another, but fellow citizens.* Getting there, however, takes a softening of the heart; and that’s what we found was such a hurdle with the cat.
Vérène, being French, has called her Mabelle, “my beautiful”. It just leaves me wondering: how much moreso from a God’s eye view, those human refugees.
* Ephesians 2:19
Text below or [Listen here]]
It’s been a washout for the holidays with July having double the normal rainfall in parts, but that’s not stopped my wife and I from getting out in our canoes!
Two miles off North Uist is a tiny island that I’d yearned to visit ever since the local taxi driver pulled in, pointed it out, and solemnly said: “That is the island of Boreray, the birth place of the grandfather of Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon.”*
I thought - “So, here’s a people who know a thing or two about pilgrimage” - and a fortnight ago, pilgrimage was indeed the spirit with which Vérène and I paddled out into the Atlantic.
We wanted to experience Boreray’s Field of the Monks, its burial mounds reputedly from all the Celtic monastic outposts of the islands north of Eigg. A small cross, cut into black bedrock on the shore, reminds the visitor that their spiritual basis, was community ongoing.**
That afternoon Shonny Mhor, a retired Berneray fisherman, drove out to a headland to check that we were safe. That’s the way of such communities, the older folks looking out for the younger ones.
Are these traditions disappearing? Perhaps, yet not everywhere. The other night I took friends fishing in the Firth of Forth.
The mackerel turned up just as we were heading home. By the time we’d filled a bucket, the rising tide had reached full flow and we had to fair hammer it back up the coast to return to Kinghorn pier.
We saw folks watching us through binoculars, and knew that, had we been in any danger, their lifeboat would have launched in minutes.
I thought how lifeboat crews give so much unpaid time – to borrow from the Psalmist - for “they that go down to the sea in ships [and] cry unto the Lord in their trouble.
The monks who rest in mounds on Boreray would have known and loved those selfsame ancient words. There you glimpse it: the depth through time, of community ongoing.
* - The said taxi driver, as everybody local would know, was Alda Ferguson of Lochmaddy. Speaking to Alda by phone today (the day of broadcast), he told me that the source of his information was the late Roddy Macaskill of Berneray, who Alda considers to have been a reliable source. According to what Roddy told Alda, the parents of Neil Armstrong’s grandfather left Boreray when the boy was just six months old. Neil is a very common name, the influence of the Irish Uí Néills (“descendants of Niall”), the King of Tara, having extended to the Hebrides. (One of my own 4x great grandmothers was an O’Neill, though of what branch, who knows.) Richard Sharpe’s introduction to his translation of Adomnán’s Life of St Columba surmises: “It is possible that Iona was a principal church for both Dalriada and the Northern Uí Néill.
** - My thanks to Jerry Cox, the sole resident of Boreray, for pointing us to the cross and the Field of the Monks. His website of the island’s history, with pictures of the mounds etc., is www.boreray-island.co.uk. Jerry mentioned that the island used to get a lot of canoe visitors – university groups etc – but now Health and Safety combined with the internet’s virtual reality replacing actual reality has largely killed that off.
Although Martin Martin (writing around 1695) describes the Monk’s Field as “this little plot”, the area peppered with mounds of various sizes seemed to me to extend over perhaps a dozen acres. The biggest of them can be clearly seen as little pimples with the naked eye from a distance of 3 miles at the highest point of the road leading from the Berneray causeway on North Uist. I am astonished not to have heard previously of the self-evident importance of this site for the Celtic Church. I even found myself wondering, as a longshot, whether Boreray might be added to such candidates as Tiree as the possible lost monastic isle that Adomnán called Himba, from which the Iona monks were forever going to and fro.
Martin devotes a page to Boreray (“Borera”), describing the island’s loch, agriculture and archaeology, and mentioning an inhabitant by the name of “MacVanich, i.e. Monk’s Son”. He states
The burial-place near the houses is called the Monks-field. for all the monks that died in the islands that lie northward from Egg were buried in this little plot: each grave hath a stone at both ends, some of which are three, and others four feet high. There are big stones without the burial-place even with the ground; several of them have little vacuities in them, as if made by art : the tradition is, that these vacuities were dug for receiving the monks’ knees when they prayed upon them.
Boreray burial mound, very close to the cup marks at the highest point on the island’s south end. I’m wearing a dry suit for canoeing safety.
Text below or Listen here
These past few days have seen the people of El Salvador celebrate the beatification – part of the process of recognising a saint - of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who died thirty-five years ago from an assassin’s bullet.
More than thirty others were also killed at his funeral, when death squad gunmen fired into the crowd of mourners.
What had Romero done to justify such silencing? Quite simply, he practiced liberation theology. That’s to say, theology that liberates theology itself from being tied up in knots, so that it blocks the flow of divine justice to the poor.
The week before his murder, the Archbishop had preached on land reform. A nation’s land, he said, is God’s blessing, for the people. “The land is a sign of justice and reconciliation,” and its maldistribution, “a consequence of sin.”*
All I can say is – give us more such turbulent priests! Protestant ones as well! Give us more of such a man, who also said: “Let us not tire of denouncing the idolatry of wealth…. One’s value is not in what one has, but in what one is.”**
The land is the bedrock of human life. We need it for our food and water, for a place to live, and I was thrilled last week when Aileen McLeod, our government minister for land reform, spoke about it also as a source of “spiritual well-being.”***
The Blessed Oscar Romero was brutally brought down, but divine justice flows on like a never-ending river. No bullet yet devised has yet killed God.
I’m not a Catholic, but I delight in this man’s beatification. Here we see a sign of the times; a sign for all, of “spiritual well-being”.
* Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love, Fount, London, 1989, p. 238.
** Romero, p. 206.
*** Address to Scottish Land & Estates, 19 May 2015.
Another Easter holiday has passed. It’s back to work as normal – and yet, Easter should disrupt our very sense of what is “normal”.
There can be no “normal” in Kenya where, last week, gunmen opened fire, shouting at their student victims: “This will be a good Easter holiday for us.”
These jihadists have hijacked the name of Islam, to borrow a line from Robert Burns: “To murder men and give God thanks!”
Yet, how easily we recruit the name of God to war. Last month I was struck when Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, blessed a cross that had been made from the brass casings of used artillery shells.
One wonders what jihadists made of that.
I was therefore heartened by the very different tone of the Archbishop’s sermon this past Sunday. He’d been speaking with a Coptic bishop about their members who’d recently been executed by the so-called “Islamic” State in Libya.
Apparently, they died proclaiming Christ. Archbishop Welby was moved, saying: “Christians must resist without violence the persecution [that] they suffer...”
In a video, the terrorists had said their action was “a message signed with blood … to the People of the Cross.”
It forces one to think: What might it mean for us to be, the People of the Cross?
Does it mean to fight violence with violence, evil compounding evil?
Or does it mean - as Christ said – to “put away your sword”? To reflect that Paul was once Jihadi John? To find that Hell cannot contain such love as this?
In another recent massacre – that of the cartoonists in Paris – people showed their solidarity by tweeting, “Je suis Charlie Hebdo.”
Easter is the transformation of the violence of the world.
Dare we pray to find the courage by which, in the words of the Archbishop’s sermon, we might “resist without violence”?
Dare we even tweet it?
Je suis … the People of the Cross.
“How the mighty have fallen!” This past week my mind’s been filled with those words from the Song of the Bow – King David’s lament for the fall of Jonathan and Saul, and a metaphor for all whose strength has given way.
Two events bring this to mind – one is a personal loss, with the sudden passing of Scotland’s eminently “weighty” Quaker - Christine Agnes Murison Davis.
When Christine was in her prime, we used to tease her for being the Quaker Quango Queen. She gave much of her life to public service, whether chairing the Scottish Legal Aid Board, or speaking for the powerless on the Scottish Agricultural Wages Board.
We Quakers don’t have hierarchies and clergy. But if we did, Christine would have been our Pope. King David’s Song of the Bow speaks for such likes in saying: “A gazelle lies slain upon your heights, o Israel. How the mighty have fallen!”*
The other event that’s brought the mighty to mind this week has been a much more public and political fall – that of Sir Malcolm Rifkind.
Long ago he was my constituency MP, and I’ll always remember the way he promptly sorted out a visa problem that I had with a truculent foreign embassy.
Yet, the magnetic force of power so easily pulls the moral compass. In ancient China the emperors had absolute power, but with one constraint. This was called, the Mandate of Heaven, and it was the idea that power is ultimately accountable to the divine, albeit maybe through the court of public opinion.
Irrespective of whether he’s broken any rules, Sir Malcolm has lost favour in the public court. For power is a precious trust. And each of us, we too, have power and Heaven’s mandate in our lives.
How fares each one of us in using or abusing it? By what patterns and examples do we set our moral compass … as we survey the mighty, as they fall?
* - 2 Samuel 1:19, NIV.
The most heartwarming news that I heard this week came from Paris, on Tuesday, when Lassana Bathily, who had been born in Mali, had his citizenship application speeded up and awarded in the presence of the French prime minister.
Lassana Bathily was the Muslim supermarket assistant who hid his Jewish customers in a giant refrigerator, then sneaked out to get help as the gunman took hostages in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
When conferring Bathily’s citizenship papers and a medal, the French interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, described his heroism as an “act of humanity [that] has become a symbol of an Islam of peace and tolerance.”
Bathily answered that he did not consider himself to be a hero. “Yes, I helped Jews get out,” he said, brimming with emotion, but: “We’re brothers …. It’s not that we’re Jewish or Christian or Muslims. We’re all in the same boat.”
“I would do the same again,” he insisted, “because I was following my heart.”
And there’s the essence. He was following his heart.
Whenever those who perpetrate atrocities hijack the name of a religion, they get a bad name all religions. Yet non-religious figures like Stalin and Pol Pot also perpetrated atrocities, at times singling out the religious for special persecution.
We might not have high expectations of a Stalin or Pol Pot. Yet everyone expects the highest standards of religious people – which is what makes the courage of Lassana Bathily so uplifting.
It’s a frightening time just now to be an ordinary Moslem in France - or a Jew - or a cartoonist. But this young man has mapped a path to reconciliation. He followed his heart, and that religion took him to the place where we’re all of one heart.
“Blessed are the pure of heart - for they shall see God.”
A report this week claims that obesity is costing Britain 47 billion pounds a year, which is more than the combined cost of our expenditure on war, terrorism and armed violence.
It makes me wonder what constitutes true security. Are conventional “enemies” our biggest threat to wellbeing, or do we all have security vulnerabilities, that bring the threats closer to home?
It was my birthday this week and my wife took me to a French restaurant. It was a quiet night and we ended up having a nice blether with the owner and the chef.
“So” - we asked them intrepidly - “what’s your honest take on running this kind of business in Scotland?”
They said they love living here, but do wish that we wouldn’t ruin our meals by plastering them with salt and lashing our palates with sweet fizzy drinks!
They see Scotland as having a relatively impoverished food culture. Often eating out is more about showing off than enjoying fresh food painstakingly crafted.
I felt like surreptitiously sliding the guilty salt-cellar away from my plate! But as we headed home to Govan that night, we mused on how a lot of our low-income friends and neighbours love good food, but simply can’t afford, or easily obtain it.
You’ve got to look at how the food and marketing economy works - and in whose interests?
There’s an old story that the Devil’s first temptation of Christ was to turn stones into bread. Today, we might hear it as a metaphor - the temptations of controlling the food supply system.
Sometimes when we eat unhealthily we’re trying to fill up inner emptiness, but with false satisfiers. We turn stones into bread, only to put on the stones.
That’s why this week’s obesity report is a wake-up call; for as a great English theologian once warned: “I can’t get no satisfaction, cause I try, and I try, and I try.”
Tonight is Halloween, a night that marks the old Celtic start of winter, a night for kids to “trick or treat” - and for those of us beyond such pranks, a time for tales of long ago.
One story that I love was written down around 1900 by the Reverend John Gregorson Campbell.* It’s called The Young Man in the Fairy Knoll, but listen now with modern ears.
Two young men on the Isle of Harris were heading home at Halloween. Each had a jar of whisky on his back, and as they reached The Slope of the Big Stones they saw a sìthean – a faerie hill – all illuminated, with the door wide open and the sounds of merriment and music coming from inside.
Now, in those days the Scottish Government had not yet troubled itself with blood alcohol levels, and the first man ran inside and joined the reel without so much as setting down his burden.
But his friend, knowing the need for prudence with the Otherworldly powers, took a needle from his plaid and jammed it in the hinge of the sìthean’s door; and when dawn broke, he was at liberty to leave.
Twelve months later he returned. There was the light back on inside the hill, but his poor friend was still dancing with the jar of whisky on his back, exhausted and reduced to skin and bones yet crying out: “Just one more reel, just one more reel.”
Or it might be - “Just one more drink, one more drink” – how often have we heard that line?
Sometimes we need the sìthean with its merriment and music, but enchantment must be balanced with our other foot in the world of practicalities. Otherwise we become addicted, we waste away to skin and bones, and then the sadness is we miss life’s deeper music.
So there we are – “trick or treat?” this Hallow’s ‘en – but don’t forget to put a needle in the hinge.
* - In The Gaelic Otherworld, ed. Ronald Black, Birlinn Ltd, Edinburgh, 2005, p. 33, with my dramatisation added.
from Alastair McIntosh, a Quaker, author and scholar
Good Morning and As-Salāmu `Alaykum
Given what’s in the news these days – violence or abuse in Syria, Iraq, Rotherham - what runs through your mind when you see a person of Arabic or Asian ethnicity walking down the street?
Then consider: how might it feel to be that person? Misunderstood? Angry? Shamed? Fearful of being tarred by the brush of racial stereotyping?
Earlier this week I was at the Greenbelt Christian festival and heard a panel of English Muslims speaking about their present cultural discomfort. On Radio Scotland this coming Sunday morning Cathy Macdonald’s programme will similarly interview three young Scottish Muslims.
Often these are people from ethnic backgrounds that we profoundly colonised in the past. No matter what gloss we might try and put on the British Empire, domination was a dirty, violent business.
Violence never properly processed leaves a poison in the mind that knocks on down the generations. Abuse begets abuse creating subcultures of abuse, which is why Alyas Karmani, a Bradford imam, was saying last weekend that British youths drawn to fight for IS are in the lure of “a psychotic death cult,” because the War on Terror has only manufactured more terror.
And yet there’s hope. Also at Greenbelt I shared a platform with Mpho Tutu, the daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
I told her how, in 1988, I’d watched one Presbyterian pastor heckling “Hang Mandela!” as another, the Very Reverend and very elderly George MacLeod was stirred to dance outside Iona Abbey by her mother, Leah Tutu.
Our task, said Mpho, is to replace the Cycle of Revenge with the Cycle of Forgiveness. That’s the message of the Cross today but also, at its deeper levels, the message of Islam.
Moment for Reflection
following interview at Greenbelt Festival with Clare Balding
Text below, or Listen Here
The theme to this year’s Greenbelt is “travelling light”, and I’ve just travelled down from the Outer Hebrides, from the small communities in which I grew up.
To me these islands are the Holy Hebrides – since early Celtic times a place of closeness both to God and nature.
Some time back I dropped in on Calum, the Free Church of Scotland minister at Callanish. “The old people of this island,” he said, as we sipped tea and broke cake, “maintain that there is only one quality in the human heart that the Devil cannot counterfeit.”
You can imagine the raising of my liberal eyebrows!
“Yes,” Calum softly insisted.
“Only one thing that he cannot fake. We call it in the Gaelic, the miann. M-I-A-N-N. It means, ardent desire.
“The one thing that the Devil cannot counterfeit in the human heart - is the ardent desire for God.”
Calum’s Presbyterian language differs from my Quaker silences.
And yet I heard the crashing of the waves.
I sensed the starry universe.
God - grant to us your ardency of miann.
Light within our hearts - the fires of love.
(The music played towards the end of this was Mendelssohn's Hebridean Overture. The books mentioned by Clare Balding during preceding interview jointly with Mpho Tutu were Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power and Hell and High Water: Climate Change, Hope and the Human Condition.)
* My opening address delivered at this event as published by the Kinloch Historical Society is now online here.
Thought for the Day – c. 0723, 9 July 2014 - BBC Radio Scotland
from Alastair McIntosh - Quaker, author and scholar
Thought for the Day – c. 0723, 19 June 2014 - BBC Radio Scotland
from Alastair McIntosh - Quaker, author and Fellow of the Centre for Human Ecology
As violence continues in the Middle East, a glimmer of hope this week is that the British embassy in Iran is to re-open.
That’s a far cry from two years ago when Donald Rumsfeld, the former US defence secretary, said the chances of diplomacy working were “close to zero” and war-war looked like trumping jaw-jaw.
Then suddenly, the tension relaxed. Why? Because a year last Saturday the Iranian people elected Hassan Rouhani as their President, and remarkably, this cleric gained his PhD from Glasgow’s Caledonian University.
Yesterday I read the abstract, and it’s all about how Islamic law can be interpreted. “The Quran is … flexible,” he wrote, and this “leaves room for flexibility in the evaluation of its injunctions.”
I’d imagine examples might include the scope to exercise mercy in punishing criminals. Or where, in the Quran’s version, Abel says to his murderous brother, Cain: “If you stretch out your hand to kill me, it is not for me to kill you, because I respect God (Allah), the Cherisher of the Worlds” (V:30-35).*
As Tom Johnston showed in his History of the Working Classes in Scotland, we too were once a “democratic theocracy” with some pretty inflexible religion used to keep women and the poor in their places. Gradually, however, we came to see that the three most important words in the Bible, are “God is love.”
President Rouhani seems to be endorsing Islam on a similar path. The planned re-opening of the British embassy in Tehran acknowledges him as a figure of relative peace and stability in a broken region. One that is, in part, the product of a Scottish education.
Clydebuilt! To which I saw one blogger ask: “But is he a Protestant Muslim or a Catholic Muslim?”
To which the riposte?
* Verse numberings differ according to Qu'ranic numbering systems. I'm using a 1940s edition of the authoritative Yusuf Ali translation and commentary, but I see that. most modern versions number these verses from v. 27
** Note for non-Scots: "Clydebuilt" is an expression that means "made in Glasgow", being on the River Clyde. The Protestant/Catholic reference is to a well-know joke about Scottish Christian sectarianism, where a man is asked if he is a Protestant or a Catholic, and says, "I'm an atheist." To which his questioner replies, "Yes, but are you a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist." The last line relates to "Irn Bru" - a soft drink, supposedly made from iron girders, that has become one face of Scotland's national identity being sometimes described as "Scotland's other national drink," whisky being the first.
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