Saturday, 10 January 2015

The road goes ever on

This New Year, I have a great sense of gratitude to the God who has made me who I am, and brought me to where I am.

When I was young, my church emphasised that God has a plan for each of our lives, and that we need discernment in finding, and fulfilling that plan. The impression I received was of one, definitive future which would be revealed to us in an almost magical way if we asked with sufficient persistence.

Well, it wasn’t like that for me. Not normally. There was one job advertisement which leapt off the page, kindling an unexpected enthusiasm in me. I applied. After long delays, there was a phone call at just the right time, and I got a job, though not the one I’d originally applied for. That was how God’s guidance should work, I thought.

But there was also the time the young woman I’d dreamed of the night before came into the office. Surely it’s a sign, I thought? And there was the moment in a crowded Kentish Town living room I just knew God was calling me to be a Baptist minister. Well, in time I realised that the girl was not the ‘one for me’, and that my personality was unsuited to church ministry.

At times I was driven by an obsessive and unhealthy sense of what I felt God expected of me. I’d do stuff which I thought would please God, like handing out gospel tracts on a windswept street corner in an attempt to atone for what I regarded as my failures. The idea of God’s guidance was destroying me rather than liberating me.

But I now look back with thankfulness. I am now doing a job I love in IT, a job which was scarcely imaginable when I left school. I am enormously grateful for wife, and family, for home and friends and churches. I am grateful for the degree of self-knowledge I’ve been given.

And looking back, I can see in these things a ‘givenness’. There was nothing magical, or obviously supernatural. I went through life, pushing on doors when I came to them, sometimes seeking to discern that still inner voice which I believe is the voice of God, sometimes ignoring it. There have been jobs I applied for and didn’t get, and later realised they would have destroyed me. God, it seems, knows my needs better than I do myself.

I wondered how could write about thankfulness and God’s creative prompting without giving the sense I’ve in some way arrived, and thereby hurting those who are suffering.

Well, even now, there are days of numbness and shadow, God-absent days. And looking back over five decades, I recall many times of darkness: those long, sad Christmases, those years beset by anxiety and the fear of being suicidal, those years before I came north spent in jobs I found so difficult that I regularly dreamed of the office being burnt to a smouldering shell.

Days when there was no joy, no feeling of thankfulness, only a stubborn resolve, encouraged by intermittent glimpses of God, to choose joy, to choose hope believing in the coming of daylight and springtime.

So I think it’s OK to write about thankfulness, because I am not a stranger to pain. I know darkness, not as much as many, but enough to understand the despair some of us experience. And I attribute everything I am and have to the love of a gracious God who over the years has revealed to me who I am, and helped me become more fully myself.

So I believe I have been guided by God, but not along a fixed, predestined path, at least not in any sense which rules out my freedom to choose. The God who knows our ending from our beginning presents us daily with a range of possibilities. We make our choices, listening (or not) to that inner voice, and each choice we make will open up a new range of possibilities. This is flexible, creative, God-by-your-side guidance – even when we make terribly wrong choices, there are still creative options, still hope, still grace.

New Year is about looking forward as well as looking back. And this calls for courage as we face the unknown, the challenge of our limited view of the possibilities, the complacency which makes us more comfortable staying where we are rather than continuing to learn and grow. And for some of us this New Year holds very specific fears.

But as Christians, we can face 2015 with hope, trusting the God whose face we see in Jesus, the God whose severe love calls us not to scurry past the beckoning doors, but to be open to our own best futures.

(Christian Viewpoint from the Highland News dated 1st January 2015)

Friday, 2 January 2015

A life in letters: Scripture Union - Bookshops

(Click here to read about my previous job, as Librarian at Carluke.)
I climbed the steep flight of steps leading from Glasgow’s Bothwell Street to St Vincent Street, passed Alexander ‘Greek’ Thompson’s famous Free Church building and arrived on the pavement opposite Scripture Union’s office and bookshop. Confidently, I crossed the road, ran up the front steps, and knocked on the door.

280 St Vincent Street, Glasgow  Formerly HQ of Scripture Union - Scotland
My friend John Brand, the bookshop manager, had undertaken to introduce me to the duties of my new post as bookshop manager in Falkirk which I took up in June 1977. I spend some days with him in Glasgow; we then visited the Edinburgh shop where I met the manager, Chris Andrews and Timothy the patchwork mouse who nested happily on her desk. Finally, we went to Falkirk where I was introduced to my assistant Christine, and after a few more days’ induction, I was left to get on with the job.

I worked for just twelve months in the narrow shop which hugged the pavement in Cow Wynd just past the sub post-office, before taking over from John as manager of the Glasgow shop when he left to go to Bible College. My boss was John Butler, then the General Secretary of Scripture Union in Scotland.
Scripture Union in Scotland was committed to introducing children to God through running S.U. groups in Primary and Secondary Schools, and organising camps, summer missions, and special events throughout the year. At that point, the bookshops helped support this work financially and by supplying appropriate literature, as well as providing outlets for the Bible Reading Notes and Sunday School teaching materials produced by the English wing of the organisation, and making a contribution to the spiritual life and outreach of the communities in which they were situated.
My responsibilities, both in Glasgow and Falkirk, included ordering, displaying and promoting stock, and managing staff and money. We sold not just Christian books, but music on cassette tape and LP record, Bible reading notes, greetings cards, Bibles and hymn books, material for Sunday School and youth workers, and stationery items.
In contrast to the shops in Glasgow and Edinburgh which, in the face of competition from other Christian outlets focussed almost exclusively on supporting and resourcing members of the Scripture Union family the Falkirk shop, known locally as ‘the Bible shop’ served the whole Christian community in the town, and was much used by the public at large, particularly for the purchase of greetings cards and Bibles for special occasions such as christenings.
I had a leaflet printed to promote our work, with the slogan ‘More than just another shop’. It emphasised both the spiritual value of the merchandise we were selling, and also our hope that people coming through the door would detect in the atmosphere and in the friendliness of the staff something special, something of God’s grace and love.  I was certainly motivated to show something of this grace in my own interactions with people, although I don’t recall ever engaging any customers in conversation on spiritual issues apart from discussing the subject-matter of books.
Later, when I moved to the Glasgow shop, marketing opportunities included producing advertising brochures promoting the sale of books by mail order, and reviewing books for Scripture Union – Scotland’s own quarterly news-sheet (I recall concluding an review of a book on Christian attitudes to music expressing my doubts as to whether ‘Jesus would ever be found dancing to the savage beat of rock.’  It was, I knew, a powerful phrase, but even as I wrote it I wondered if it were actually true.)
At Glasgow I was responsible for providing all the camps and holiday missions held by Scripture Union across Scotland with sale-or-return bookstalls. Early each year, I prepared an annotated list of recommended titles from which the volunteers running the events selected their requirements. I would review and collate their returns, and then purchase enough stock to meet their needs. 
I remember commenting in the draft of one year’s list of recommended title on what I saw as the unfortunate tendency of Christians to consume biographies of outstanding Christians one after another. Each book would give us a brief, heightened sense of hunger for God, and of longing to be as committed to God and to the faith as the person we were reading about, but after a few days our spiritual focus had reverted to its previous level, until we read another inspiring book and the cycle was repeated. In the notes I sent upstairs for typing, I referred to these temporary spiritual ‘highs’ as being ‘cheap thrills’ – I was surprised when it was pointed out to me by the troubled lady at the keyboard that it was hardly an appropriate term to use: in her judgement the phrase had exclusively sexual connotations.  I now realise that part of the problem with living vicariously through other people’s experiences is that we have not learned to be comfortable in our own skin – we seek to model our spiritual lives on what we see in others rather than exploring our own uniqueness and discovering how God calls us to live out our faith.
Looking back at these years with Scripture Union, a couple of issues stand out. One relates to the range of theology represented in my stock. Scripture Union was and remains an evangelical organisation, and it was to be expected that the books sold in its shops would represent a broadly evangelical theological position, but I wasn’t given any guidelines to inform my purchasing. Each of the other bookshop managers in the Scottish Scripture Union network, while maintaining a standard, staple stock had their own distinctive emphases. Chris Andrews in Edinburgh, for instance, had a particular interest in books reflecting the more mystical, contemplative tradition, and this interest was reflected on her shelves.
I, however, was still very theologically naïve. I remember writing an article about Christian books for the newsletter at Ebenezer Hall, Coatdyke, in which I discussed which publishing houses were reliable in terms of issuing ‘sound’ evangelical works. I had yet to learn that aspects of truth were to be found in many different places. And I recall being disturbed to discover that my predecessor at the Glasgow shop had ordered from the Collins representative twenty copies of a novel which, thought it may have been written by a Christian, didn’t seem to me to be particularly Christian in emphasis when I dipped into it and even included a fairly explicit description of a naked woman. This I couldn’t handle, and I persuaded the uncomprehending rep to take it back
Whatever I would think about that particular title were I to come across it now, I had much to learn about how Christian faith can be expressed in writing and about how a proper evaluation of a book involves considering the purpose for which it was written and the point the author is making rather than simply reacting to something within it which takes you beyond your comfort zone.
A second issue was my concern about commercialism, and the balance between sacred and secular objectives when Christianity and business are linked. My later explorations of this theme in the history of Scottish religious publishing were prompted by my experiences at Scripture Union. Initially, I was excited by the regular visits of the publishers’ representatives with the latest catalogues announcing new publications which I could promote and sell. But I soon began to wonder whether in fact so many new titles were necessary. I found myself tempted to promote new titles as ‘must haves’ for my customers. But were they really all essential reading? Would they really have a significant impact on people which existing works could not deliver?
Sometimes the answer to this was ‘yes’, but more often it was ‘perhaps’ and sometimes ‘certainly not!’ At times, I felt I had stepped on to a treadmill of commerce, promoting new titles simply to maintain cash-flow. I was horrified by some of the ‘Christian’ products we were offered – Christian only in the sense that ordinary items were offered for sale decorated with verses from the Bible – such as the Pritt glue-sticks each bearing a small round sticker on which was printed a biblical text in a minute font This seemed a blatant attempt to exploit the Christian market. And I was dismayed for a number of reasons to see in a supplier’s catalogue a whale-shaped piece of leather, designated ‘Winnie the Whale,’ clearly designed for disciplining your kids – it bore the verse ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child.’
For the most part, however, I was delighted to be involved in distributing Christian literature. Of the titles which appeared when I was working with Scripture Union, three stand out. One was published while I was still in Falkirk – Joni, by Joni Eareckson described the American author’s discovery of faith in God after she had been left paralysed from the neck down as the result of a diving accident. We sensed that this was going to be a ‘big’ book – people, aware of its impending publication, were asking for copies well before it appeared – and following its release I took an advertisement in the local Falkirk newspaper to promote it. Initial sales following the appearance of this ad were disappointing, but interest grew in subsequent weeks and Joni sold in substantial numbers over the next few years.
Then there was Ronald Sider’s call to develop a sense of responsibility in the face of extreme poverty, and commit to action to alleviate it. His Rich Christians in an age of hunger made a deep impact on the evangelical and the wider Christian community. Finally, there was the publication of the New International Version of the Bible, the Scottish launch of which I attended at a hotel in Edinburgh’s George Street. Inspired by stories of the huge success of the New English Bible, the New Testament part of which had been published in 1961 when Edward England the manager of the S.U. bookshop in London had ordered thousands of copies.  I placed a substantial order for the new Bible, and then wondered if I’d done the right thing, before worrying that I wouldn’t have enough copies to meet the initial demand, and ordering still more copies.
I tried a different approach to mail order marketing by taking out a small ad in the personal column of the Daily Telegraph offering to supply copies of the new Bible post free. Regrettably, on the day this was due to appear, the Telegraph wasn’t published in Scotland so I didn’t get to see the carefully-crafted wording of my advertisement in print, and in the event it failed to yield one single order!  But though not selling in such dramatic quantities as the New English Bible had on its first appearing, the New International Version steadily gained in popularity, and within a few months, the piles of Bible-filled cardboard boxes in my back shop melted away, much to my relief.
I enjoyed working for Scripture Union. I appreciated that Christian ethos of the organisation, and the friendliness and supportiveness of the staff, in particular my bookshop team. And I think I did a good job with an enthusiasm which was appreciated by colleagues and customers like. But unresolved personal anxieties made my last months at 280 St Vincent Street very difficult. I left Scripture Union three years after beginning to work with the organisation, and took up my next post, as school librarian at Airdrie Academy.
The happiest of my Scripture Union days were probably those when I was based in Falkirk. I remember Saturdays in the office there, with my Saturday girl Mhairi Todd (who was once addressed on a computer-generated label as ‘M hairi 3 odd) and Fiona, a teenager from one of the villages close to Falkirk whom I’d met at the St Andrews SU mission would sometimes drop in. We’d buy millionaire’s shortbread from the bakers along the road, and sell books and joke with the customers, and life was sweet.
(Click here to read about my next role as school librarian at Airdrie Academy.)

A life in letters: Scripture Union - Beach Mission

For several years my parents had attempted to persuade me to sign up as a helper at a Scripture Union activity, but I had resisted this suggestion. But after the spiritual awakening I experienced in December 1973 and as a direct result of the change in attitude which resulted from this I applied to join the summer mission team working at St Andrews during the first fortnight in August, 1974, despite being terrified at this new challenge. That year I joined the Mission for the second week only as a ‘taster.’ Over the subsequent five years, however, I helped at S.U. Missions for a fortnight each summer. This involvement was one of the formative experiences of my life.

Martyrs' Church, North Street, St Andrews - now a University Library

That first year, my parents holidayed at St Andrews at the same time as the mission, and dropped me off outside the Martyrs’ Church in North Street with my camp bed and gear, before going off to stay at a local hotel where I joined them for the second week of my holiday. They visited Martyrs’ Church several times in the course of the week, bringing copious gifts of fruit, and a supply of sulphaguanidine tablets when we were smitten with an outbreak of the runs.

The day I arrived at St Andrews was the middle Saturday of the mission, the day the team, which was led by Hugh and Margaret McWhinnie from Stirling, had time off. We went off to Craigtoun Park in the afternoon, and sat on the grass in the sunshine, Mike Woodward, one of the team members said to me in all seriousness ‘I hope you don’t think this is how we spend all our time on Mission.’

Later we went back into town, and at low tide I walked along the rocks from the Castle beach to the old open-air swimming pool being inducted into the mysteries of rock pool life by Colin Taylor, a teenage enthusiast who would later become a marine biologist. As we picked our way over the seaweed Colin also shared with me his fascination with the C. S. Lewis Narnia chronicles, which he and his siblings had been read as bed-time stories as long as he could remember. And after that endless afternoon of clear sky and discovery we returned to base for a team meeting.

Martyrs’ Church lies near the heart of the beautiful Fife town, just across the road from the much older St Salvator’s Chapel, completed in 1450. Beneath its spire, Reformation martyr Patrick Hamilton was burned at the stake in 1528 for asserting that "man is justified by faith not works", and you can still see the smiling outline of a face in the tower’s stonework, high above the road which is said to have appeared by supernatural agency as the flames seared Hamilton’s flesh.

Each day began with breakfast at about 8am followed by a team meeting to finalise plans for the day ahead. On Sundays, this was followed by our attendance at local churches. Two team members were despatched to each church where they would ask if the Mission activities for the forthcoming week could be announced. I normally attended the small, traditional Brethren fellowship which met in a converted shop in the narrow road leading from the east end of Market Street. As I took the short walk round the corner from Martyrs’ Church the carillon in the tower of Holy Trinity Church cascaded jerky, mechanical hymn tunes across the town centre to encourage worshippers on their way.

On the Sunday evenings, we held an informal open-air service on the sloping, grassy hill in the centre of the Kinkell Braes caravan site, located high above the town overlooking St Andrews Bay. I especially enjoyed being driven around the site’s bumpy roads for a quarter of an hour or so before we were due to start with a battery-operated loud hailer stuck through the open passenger window issuing an invitation to folk to come along. And then we’d join the others for the service. I remember the orange sun dipping towards the horizon as the air grew cooler, and the smell of newly-cut grass, the singing and laughter and the sense of belonging.

Weekday mornings were taken up with work at whichever of the local caravan parks we’d been assigned to – my first time at St Andrews I was asked to help at the Kinkell Braes site, where for 90 minutes or so each day we colonised a small, cliff-top field downhill from the caravans. There we were joined by a group of thirty or forty kids who were initially attracted by leaflets we’d distributed. For most of the time we played team ball games with them, after which they’d divide into small groups each with a couple of leaders. During this group time we’d read a passage from the Bible together, think through its implications for our lives, and pray simply, asking God to speak to us through what we had read. The aim was to model Christian grace to the children in the way we related to them and played the games, and to introduce them to the Bible and to the concept that God speaks to us through it, and that God hears when we pray.

At the other caravan site where some of us worked, there was a barn we could use on wet days, but there was no such emergency provision at Kinkell Braes, and on the one or two occasions when it was wet we shipped the kids into the church hall by car. I remember on one occasion when the rain came on heavily when we were in the middle of playing games in our field squeezing eleven small boys into my Mini Minor for the group time.

The ultimate intention of the group times was to give the children, gently and without any pressure, the opportunity to respond to what God was saying by making a personal commitment to him. In all my five years of involvement with Missions, there was only one occasion when a child came to me wanting to say ‘yes’ to God – I was unsure how to handle this, and took him to one of the other leaders. It was intended that after the fortnight had ended, each of us would keep in touch with the children in the group we’d been responsible for, and I did this fairly assiduously.

After we’d finished for the day at the caravan site, we’d drive back into town and try to find a parking space near the church. This was often difficult, and we weren’t sure whether it was right to pray that we’d find one easily. What I do remember about these searches for somewhere to leave the car was the sense of being relaxed, of knowing that whatever I was doing while on this St Andrews adventure there was no pressure. I had stepped beyond my comfort zone and was relying entirely on God, and God was there, and in God’s presence I was utterly secure. And so I knew that whenever I found a space to park the car it wouldn’t be a minute too early or a minute too late.

After lunch, we’d head for the East Sands where we’d hold a Beach Service on a sand pulpit around which thirty or forty kids would gather. There would be singing, competitions between the two teams into which we always divided the children and a Bible talk often involving drama. I remember once dressing up to represent the Ethiopian eunuch who, as is recorded in the book of Acts in the Bible was converted to Christianity through the ministry of the apostle Philip. I wore a stripy dressing-gown for the part, and blacked my face with coal dust. It so happened that the well-known evangelical theologian Jim Packer was holidaying in St Andrews at the time. He saw me dressed for action, and commented apparently without the slightest trace of irony that I was the most convincing Ethiopian he had ever seen.  On the Friday of the first week of the mission, the Beach Service was followed by a ‘tide fight’ on the sand, when two groups of children would each build a huge sandcastle beneath the tide-line, and competitively defend it against the inevitable onslaught of the encroaching sea.

In the late afternoon, we’d wander back to Martyr’s Church (or in my case, in the years when I had the Mini at St Andrews, drive back – often with bare sandy feet) and there would be some breathing space before tea, a chance for team members to chill out with one another. The evenings were devoted to activities for the children – crafts for the younger ones in the church hall, and games for the teenagers on the green playing fields of St Leonard’s school, just off the medieval Pends. We’d play (or in my case try to play) rounders as the shadows lengthened across the grass and then we’d go with the young people to the Rose Lane Centre at St Andrews Baptist church for refreshments, singing and informal Christian testimonies.  One evening each year, there was a parents’ night at Martyrs’ Church hall. I’ll never forget a powerful piece of drama on one of these occasions when a couple of team members, dressed entirely in black mimed the Bible story which describes Jacob wrestling with God all night ‘until the breaking of the day’; his hip is put out of joint by the deity, yet he refuses to let go of God. ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’

As with all Scripture Union activities, a creative zaniness ran through the program alongside the serious stuff - there was plenty of room for laughter and fun. In that context, I was able as usual to mask deep insecurities with a flamboyant nuttiness. The McWhinnies put up a roll of paper on which you could write down amusing things team members said, and I featured on this list with my coinage ‘supermarvellous’, sometimes extended to ‘supermarvellous hyper-brilliant’ to denote something about which I was especially enthusiastic. Eventually, some of the comments on the list became rather risqué and the roll disappeared.

Another activity crammed into the hectic fortnight was the Serompie, the prototype of which had been held some years before by Jim Macnair, a previous leader of the team. ‘Serompie’ – simply an intriguing name for a party – was derived from the French se romper meaning ‘to jump around.’ All the kids attending the event were, according to their gender, either seromperers or seromperinas; the members or the team were seromeriferers or seromperifierinas; Hugh and Margaret as team leaders were seromperiferiferer and seromperifieriferina; and should Jim Macnair and his wife attend, they, as initiators of the Serompie experience, were seromperiferiferifer and seromperiferiferiferina.  The highlight of the Serompie was an arcane ritual in which we all ate ‘serrabombs’ (aka ginger biscuits) which were handed out with dire warnings that they were explosive and could go off at any time were they not handled with the very greatest of care – various sounds of explosions out of sight of the children, and convincing shrieks from supposed victims of the serrabombs wound up the tension. The only known antidote to serrabomb ingestion was serrasquash which, if drunk within a critical time-frame would successfully neutralise the explosive propensities of the biscuits. Of course we always made sure there was more than enough serrasquash on hand, and the children lived to serompie again, although there were always some excitable boys who dramatically feigned the consequences of inner eruption.

And then finally each evening we would be on our own as a team in the church hall, and someone would read and pray, and we’d sing, perhaps accompanied by Charles Young’s earnest guitar playing. I remember him singing, passionately, what I recall was his favourite hymn, Charles Wesley’s  O for a thousand tongues to sing.

He breaks the power of cancelled sin,
He sets the prisoner free.
His blood can make the foulest clean; 
His bloodavails for me.

But often I felt on edge. My heart was not praying, although my lips might have been. I did not have the confidence which the others seemed to have that God heard and answered, nor did Wesley’s words resonate personally for me in the way they seemed to do for others. 

Eventually,  we’d drift off to bed. We guys lay on camp beds on the church hall floor, just a few feet from the pavement, listening to the sound of voices passing outside, and the throaty roar of motorbikes racing down North Street. The girls slept at the other end of the corridor. Each evening we’d be awake until just after midnight, and as we lay drowsily in our sleeping bags, I’d sometimes amuse my companions by singing silly songs, or rather by singing serious songs sillily, including the following from Gounod’s Faust

We were not born with true love to trifle
Nor born to part because the wind blows cold,
What though the storm the summer garden rifle
Oh Margarita
Oh Margarita
Still on the bough is left a leaf of gold,
On the bough is left a leaf of gold
On the bough is left a leaf of gold

How I tortured this piece (and probably my listeners as well) with long- drawn out ‘Margaritas’ and ‘leafs of gold’.  At midnight, Hugh turned on the BBC news, and we listened to the headlines which in my first St Andrews summer centred round the unfolding revelations of the imminent implosion of Richard Nixon’s Presidency before finally going to sleep.

The level of my involvement in organising the mission increased with each year I was at St Andrews. For a couple of summers, I had the responsibility of writing outlines for the beach talks which were used throughout the fortnight. One series, on living in the light of the reality of heaven was entitled The best place to go and how to get there, the other, Join the family,  focussed on the implications of becoming a Christian. I took charge of the bookstall – a collection of Bibles, Christian books and leaflets, and some of what used to be called in the trade ‘holy hardware’  - pencils and rubbers and fun things with Bible verses on them. This merchandise accompanied us to most of the events we organised during the fortnight in a wooden box which, when opened, acted as a display stand. This box I lugged from venue to venue, and even took it with us to the beach. Unsold stock went back to the Scripture Union bookshop at the end of the fortnight, and I’m sure more than one subsequent book purchaser must have been puzzled as grains of sand dropped from between the pages as she read.

I worked hard to promote my wares,  even I regret to say, assuming the persona of one Boris Book on several occasions by dressing up in a cardboard box. There was little Boris would not do to ensure a sale – he even offered to sign, personally, copies of any volume purchased from himself. I wonder if there are still in existence any copies of the Good News Bible with ‘Boris Book’ scrawled inside the front cover?

My last year at St Andrews was 1978, Hugh and Margaret were not leading the team, and there was not the same degree of focus and commitment as there had been when they were responsible. I remember it as a difficult summer, a fortnight of mists on the Kinkell Braes, and thick haar on the East Sands where small groups of kids shivered in their anoraks at the Beach Service. I felt a sense of responsibility for ensuring things went as well as possible given the circumstances, and I supported the leaders as best I could. I remember one morning towards the end of the fortnight when we were in the middle of a game of rounders at the Cairnsmill Caravan site, seeing Hugh and Margaret and their young daughters arrived to check out how we were getting on. I felt a huge sense of relief as I watched them climbing out of their car. I remember thinking this must be the way the kids in an Enid Blyton novel felt – they’d be deep in an adventure, mired in crisis, unsure what to do next, and then their parents would arrive, and they’d feel enormous relief at handing over responsibility for resolving the situation to people mature enough to handle it wisely.

I was blessed incalculably through these fortnights at St Andrews which were hugely significant milestones in my life. For the very first time I was living in community, and sharing breakfast with folk who medicated their early-morning scowls with black coffee in mugs bearing the legend ‘I am not a morning person.’ For the very first time I felt a sense of unconditional acceptance from people my own age; I appreciated the friendly respect I was shown by younger folk on the team; I learned a little more about relating naturally to girls.

I welcomed the freedom to discuss theological issues which were never raised in my home church. One year the Christian magazine Crusade had published a controversial article on the theology of childhood. This reflected on whether the correct approach to Christian education was to teach children that they were on the outside, requiring to be ‘born again’ before they could find God, or to emphasise that God loved them deeply, and that every day brought many opportunities to choose either to act in a way which pleased him, or to be driven by God-ignoring, self-focussed thinking. The fact that this debate – so central to what we were doing at St Andrews – was possible encouraged me.

I appreciated being with intelligent, creative Christians who shared my cultural tastes. I remember attending an organ recital at Holy Trinity Church one Sunday evening with Mike Woodward; I remember Pam Williams playing the second movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata from memory on the piano in the hall at Martyrs’ Church, blonde hair cascading over her dancing fingers; I remember Fiona McLachlan thanking me for being like a brother to her; I remember Charles Young’s disapproval, signified by a shake of his head accompanied by a grin when he saw some of us on a Sunday afternoon eating some ice cream we had just bought despite the fact that it was the Christian Sabbath.

Though I had never before felt anything close to this degree of acceptance and belonging, I still frequently felt on the edge. One Friday evening the team had been out very late, and some of them, including Hugh McWhinnie got into conversation with a very intoxicated fisherman whom we had met down beside the harbour with his rod. I came back to the church hall with the others, and went to bed. Time passed, and those who had stayed with the fisherman still had not returned. By 3am, I was still surrounded by empty camp beds, and I began to be afraid.  For there was a subset of the doctrine of the ‘rapture’ – the reaching that Jesus would return to the air at some point before the end of all things, and take to himself those who had believed in him – according to which there would be a ‘partial rapture.’ Those who promulgated this view held, on the grounds of very shaky biblical exposition, that while faithful believers would be taken by the returning Lord, unfaithful Christians would be left behind to pass through the ‘Great Tribulation.’ And as I lay there in Martyrs’ Church Hall while the others who had returned with me slept securely, I saw faintly illuminated in the soft light from the streetlamps still rolled-up sleeping bags, I fought against the terrible fear that the Lord had come, and that I was among those who had been left behind. Eventually there were footsteps in the hallway, and whispers about how the drunk fisherman had had to be escorted back home to Cupar and I was greatly relieved. ‘I thought it was the partial rapture,’ I muttered to Hugh, but he looked at me blankly.

But there were many times at St Andrews when I had a sense of trusting God to help me undertake the tasks for which I was responsible. Every morning I’d get up before everyone else at about 6am, and go into the main church where there was a sense of stillness and calm, and the musty ecclesiastical smell of dusty kneelers and varnished pews. I’d read the Bible passage for the day and the accompanying note in Scripture Union’s Daily Notes; I often sensed that my prayers for help were heard as I prepared what I had to do in the day ahead. The church was on the other side of the long corridor running past the halls where we were living and working, and there was a slight sense of spookiness about it, especially late at night and first thing in the morning, especially since it was linked to the undertakers next door by a corridor through which coffins were wheeled prior to funerals. I always scurried quickly past the glass-panelled doors leading into the dark church when I was on my way to the toilet in the middle of the night.

Sometimes as I sat in the still church, I sensed that God was there, seeding my mind with creative insights.  There was one local lady whose approach to sharing the Christian faith scandalised me. It was reported that she pinned black hearts on to children’s jerseys as a reminder to them of their need of salvation. One morning as I read my Bible, I came across Jesus’ reminder to his disciples that anyone who wasn’t against him was for him, and  it came to me powerfully that no matter how misguided this woman might be, and no matter how potentially damaging her actions, she was on Jesus’ side, and I should regard her in this light. I was able to do this while not condoning her actions in any way. It was a reminder that Jesus has some very strange followers.

On the evening of the final Friday night of the mission we had a barbeque at the base of the Maiden’s Rock, a solitary outcrop of sandstone springing from the rocky end of the beach in the East Bay. Our routine those Fridays was even more frantic than normal. There was food to collect, and firewood, and then after tea we’d drive to the bottom of the Kinkell Braes caravan site and carry all we needed down the steep path to the beach. There, in the last hour before twilight, the kids we’d been working with and some of their parents gathered round the bonfire we kindled and we presented a programme of serious and fun items. One year I recited a mission alphabet, based on the one I’d done at the camp in Meigle a decade before, except that for family consumption I was advised to omit the line about V equally vomit “which means the same as spew.” I also remember taking part in a spirited rendition of Little Peter Rabbit had a fly upon his nose.

We’d sing some of the spiritual songs we’d learned over the fortnight, and then someone would give a brief talk on a Christian theme. It was in this context that I heard Hugh McWhinnie telling the unforgettable story of a strange, mythical hybrid animal to highlight the blessings of contentment both with what God has made us to be, and with the gifts he has given us.  The story was about a camel, who envied the elephant’s trunk, and wished that he had one, and had his wish granted, thus becaming a camelephant. Still, however, he was not content; nor was he after subsequent wishes were granted also and he acquired characteristics of the antelope, the pelican and the canary, and the story ended with a miserably discontented camelephantelopelicanary.

I do not think I had ever felt more happy to be me. When the sun had set, and the sausages and burgers had been eaten, and the fun was over, and the ‘goodbyes’ said, we tidied the beach and carried our stuff back up the path. My first year at St Andrews, after the barbeque was over Charles Young and I, and another team member who had personal problems with which Charles was helping him wandered off along the shoreline away from the town.  I walked a few steps on front of the others as they were deep in conversation. It was completely dark by now, silent except for the sigh of the rising tide fingering its way between the rocks at the water’s edge. I shivered slightly in the wind’s chill, yet I felt completely at home. It struck me that the cold, isolated shoreline could in some circumstances be a fear-inducing environment, but because I was there with others, and especially because of the joy I had within me, I saw the beauty of it. I realised the extent to which my perception of external circumstances depended on my state of mind and of heart.

Eventually, we made our way back to Martyrs’ Church only to leave again at 11.30pm as we did on the last Friday of every Mission  and head in a group along North Street and down to the harbour by the path which skirts the Cathedral graveyard (where some of us spun yarns about ghostly monks on the other side of the wall.) We walked along the harbour wall’s uneven stones until we reached the lighthouse at the end where we stood huddled together both for warmth and in order to be able to read in torchlight the hymn books we had taken with us, and we sang. I surveyed the bay, watching the moonlight reflecting on the water, and the regular pulse of lighthouses on the horizon, and the brooding shadow of Maiden’s Rock merging into the deeper darkness, and again I felt a profound contentment. Running through my mind was the peaceful evening hymn The day thou gavest Lord has ended, its serenity at one with my mood. Not long before, I had been tortured by the thought of hearing this tune in a very different context. I imagined that the Lord had come, and the saints had been taken, and I was left to fend for myself as clouds of chaos darkened the sky and the Day of Grace was ended, and in my anguish I heard celestial voices singing The day thou gavest Lord has ended, its sweetness a mockery, and there was no hope. Now I felt only the joy of inclusion, and I wished the day would never end.

The following morning we had the gargantuan task of cleaning and tidying the church halls, and restoring them to the condition they had been in six weeks before when the first of the three consecutive SU mission teams had arrived. Margaret McWhinnie drew up a rota, assigning everyone a task to do – one year I was given the job of cleaning the guys loo, which was caked with dry urine. It was one of the most humbling things I had ever been asked to do, and it was good for me. Besides, I’d never in my life cleaned a toilet before, and it was a good learning opportunity!

And then it was time to go home. In later years, when I had a car of my own, I would give folk lifts back to Stirling or Glasgow, and so preserve for just a little longer the sense of togetherness before, with a heavy heart, I turned the car in the direction of Carluke. There were reunions, of course, when some of the team and a few of the kids met for a Saturday afternoon in a church hall in Stirling, but I found it impossible on these occasions to recapture the camaraderie and joy which I had known back in the summer.

I was in Dundee one day in the autumn of 1976. My parents had urged me to apply for a post in the library at the city’s School of Art, and had advised me that I should go up and view the library and discuss the post as this, they felt, would show that my interest in the job was genuine. This advice I followed only with reluctance, since I felt that while casing the joint before you had even been called for interview might be standard practice in my father’s medical context, it wasn’t, as far as I knew what you normally did in librarianship. I think the folk at the College were slightly bemused by my request, although they accommodated me graciously – but I didn’t hear anything from them subsequently about the post. The things I remember most about that day are: the surge of gratitude I felt towards my mother as I opened up my packed lunch and realised the care with which she had prepared it; the pre-election speech of US presidential candidate Jimmy Carter which I listened to on the car radio; and above all my time in Stirling in the evening. I had phoned Hugh and Margaret – I’d be passing through Stirling in the late afternoon. Could I drop in and see them? ‘Of course,’ I was told – and I could also go along with them to a concert being given that evening by the Swedish Christian choir Choralerna.  And so I found myself in a packed auditorium accompanied by many of the Stirling-based members of the St Andrews team, and as the music boomed through the speakers, louder than anything I’d ever heard before, I once again felt accepted and at home.

At the end of that first week in St Andrews in August 1974, my parents came to collect me, and I spent the second week of my holiday with them at their hotel. But as I said a final ‘good-bye’ at the church door,  and walked across the pavement to the car, I realised that I must ‘resume the mantle of my former self’ and there was sadness in my heart.