Thursday, 31 December 2015

Liberal Democrats Do God

‘This is the ultimate act of real love – Jesus was punished for our sins and he did it willingly, not grudgingly.’ Is this a minister or evangelist speaking? ‘To be a Christian is to humbly kneel before God and confess your failures in the certain knowledge that God will forgive you because he promised to.’
There’s a clue to the writer’s identity in the next sentence: ‘Unlike politicians, God always keeps his promise.’

These are the words of Tim Farron (MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale since 2005, recently appointed leader of the Liberal Democrats) in a book entitled Liberal Democrats do God.

Farron, born in 1970, was raised by his mother after his dad left home. He had a political awakening in his mid-teens, shocked by the extent of homelessness, and by what he saw as the ‘wicked’ and ‘immoral’ policies of Margaret Thatcher’s government. 

At 18 he found God when he discovered the Bible, read it from cover-to-cover, and embraced Christian faith. It was, he says ‘the most massive choice’ he has ever made. In 1970 he married his wife Rosie – they have 4 children.

He rightly points out that every MP brings into the Parliament their own set of values and worldview – his happens to be Christian. ‘My faith is in Jesus Christ. I put my trust in him. I count him as my Lord and saviour and I’m not ashamed of that.’

He is equally unashamed of the values this faith gives him. ‘To be a Christian is to seek to be radical, to be anti-establishment, anti-materialistic, anti-greed, other-centred, not self-centred, humble not proud, self-controlled not controlled by selfish desires.’

Reading Tim Farron’s views prompted three thoughts. The first concerns prayer, about which Farron was questioned closely by John Humphreys on the Today programme.

There’s a general concern about politicians admitting to asking God for guidance. High profile news stories have made us wary of anyone claiming to do something because they were prompted by God.

Tim Farron describes his praying in this way. He brings to any situation his own set of liberal value judgements. He doesn’t ask God ‘to present the answer to me because that doesn’t happen.’ Instead, he says, ‘you seek wisdom, and wisdom is the ability to make the best choices on the basis of the evidence in front of you.’

But I wonder if the relationship between God and the process of decision making is closer than this? Belief in God has shaped those initial value judgements; God is with us as we sift the evidence and truly seek wisdom. Do we sense God awakening us to the wisest decision?

And I wonder if every politician who truly seeks wisdom is granted the same divine prompting whether or not they acknowledge God’s existence?

And there’s the role of Christians in politics. ‘We are wrong if we think our responsibility is to legislate to make this a more Christian place,’ says Farron. He sees our role as Christians being to preach the gospel – where people see its attractiveness, and embrace it, they and society will change.

This suggests that in his voting he will support an agenda which seeks the flourishing of a tolerant, multi-faith society. This, I suspect causes tensions for him between aspects of that agenda and his personal beliefs.

But my issue is with his distinction between ‘preaching’ and ‘doing’. For we share our faith not just with words, but with actions. We show the attractiveness of Jesus by living the Jesus way in all aspects of life – including our work, whether in Parliament or elsewhere.

Thirdly, Tim Farron has great enthusiasm, but he tends to see issues in stark ‘black and white’ terms. While admitting that others see things differently, he can be critical of other Christians who don’t share his evangelical certainties.

He has little patience with notions of a ‘half-baked, low-wattage, part-time God’, and I agree with him. But those whose faith is more tentative, who see more grey than black and white, who agonise over God’s silences, who struggle with doubt and unknowing may wrongly appear to Tim Farron to be deficient in their faith.

Our view of God can be shaped by our own personalities. Spiky extroverts like Tim may encounter God as a spiky extrovert.

As Christians we are delighted to see a prominent Christian prepared to articulate his personal faith, and the intellectual credibility of faith. I love his honesty: ‘I am a sinner and have regrets every day. I beat myself up most mornings for the scumbaggery of the day before.’

In one speech he quoted ancient wisdom. ‘Those who know how to acquire power are far greater in number than those who know how to use it wisely.’ May Tim be among the few!

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 29th July 2015)

Nessie - and God

The world of Nessie-seekers was shaken last week by Steve Feltham’s conclusion that Nessie is no prehistoric monster, but a Wels Catfish.
Steve Feltham
Mr Feltham has been researching the Nessie phenomenon since 1991, reading accounts of sightings, discussing them with other Nessie enthusiasts, and spending hours scanning the waters of Loch Ness from his base in a converted mobile library on Dores Beach.

He now says ‘I have to be honest. I just don’t think Nessie is a prehistoric monster.’ The evidence, he says, points to the presence in the Loch of one or more ‘Wels Catfishes’, a species which can grow to 4 metres in length. The catfishes were apparently released into watercourses by enthusiastic Victorian sportsmen who would then hunt for them: some may have survived, and bred.

There was a strident reaction to Steve’s announcement from those concerned that it might undermine tourism and the world-wide mythology of Nessie.
I wonder how Christians would react if someone said ‘I’ve been looking for God for a quarter of a century, but I’ve reached the conclusion that all these stories about divine encounters have purely psychological and scientific explanations.’

We might fear that our own faith, and the faith of others might be shaken by this blunt statement. But I hope we would react with a supportive empathy, asking our hypothetical agnostic what has led her to this conclusion at this point in her life.

Steve Feltham seems never to have glimpsed Nessie for himself, basing his conclusions on the evidence of those who have seen …. something.

Now, we hear of every sighting of Nessie, genuine and spurious. But God is glimpsed far more often than we hear of.  Other things – a tree-trunk, some plastic debris – are mistaken for the monster. In contrast, God is often mistaken for other things: we see the beautiful, while not discerning the Beauty behind it; we experience love, but are strangers to the Love which inspires all loving.

Nessie doesn’t deign to come to Dores, but God comes to those who open-heartedly look Godwards, encouraging us to grapple with the science, but to let our imaginations show us something of the reality beyond science.

All of which means that if someone seeks God with the earnest commitment Steve brings to Nessie-hunting they will not be disappointed.

So why is our hypothetical agnostic turning away after years of searching? I suspect something must have happened to cause her decision. A deeply significant prayer unanswered? A personal experience of ill-health or tragedy? A betrayal by someone deeply trusted, a person of faith?

Perhaps she has still to discover that we learn most about God and about ourselves in the heart of mystery. Earlier this month the American author Barbara Brown Taylor gave a talk at St Paul’s Cathedral to promote her book Learning to walk in the dark.  She asked us to imagine two personal timelines; the one listing key events in our lives – a first love, a serious illness, a relationship breakdown, a bereavement; the other charting those times when we have grown most as people.
Barbara Brown Taylor, speaking at St Pauls

It’s the experience of the majority of us, she said, that in dark times we grow most. Yet if we have been brought up to see faith in Jesus Christ as all about clarity and answers and knowing, we will be perplexed to enter the cloud of uncertainty and unknowing. We must learn to walk in the dark.

Could it be that when we’re just about to turn away from the beach convinced that science explains everything and nothing, we’re at the very point of breaking through to God, and God to us?

What if Nessie were found? There would be excitement. Businesses would compete for the right to manage her, sealing her in an enclosed Loch-side bay. There would be tourists by the million, and the satisfaction of discovery.

But something would be lost, because we are drawn by the mysterious and inexplicable. This hunger for mystery is ultimately a hunger for the God who is mystery; who cannot be captured by what Barbara Brown Taylor calls the ‘lassos’ of theology, cannot be tamed; the God who forever swims free.

The Nessie story illustrates the power of belief: there are those who believe that something, something extraordinary, no mere catfish is there in the deep waters, and it is a faith which cannot be shaken.

As Christians, how do we know in the cloud of mystery that what we are drawing hope from is not simply our strong, desperate belief, but the Mystery beyond mysteries?

As we stand on the beach, looking across the water towards the hills on the horizon we hear a voice beside us saying ‘Why are you looking into the distance? I am right here, beside you.’

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 22nd July 2015)

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

A life in letters: Work - 'Talisman'

(Click here to see details of my previous job as Education Services Librarian.)

Things were changing at the Library Support Unit (LSU - as Central Services Unit had been renamed when local government was restructured in 1996 and the Highland Regional Council became The Highland Council.) Mike O’Brien took early retirement, and the senior manager who temporarily ran the Service after his departure expressed the view that I had done what I had come to do as Education Services Librarian, and that consequently, I should be ‘reined in.’ My own line manager Peter Reynolds was supportive of me and my role, but though I could have taken it as a compliment, in fact I found it distressing to be told that my work was done when from my point of view much remained to be achieved.
What in fact happened was that the whole Library Service was re-structured. The new Highland Council was committed to moving decision-making within the Highlands as close to the people as possible, and in keeping with this strategy, Area Libraries Officer posts were created for each of the eight Areas within the Council’s boundaries As there were no additional resources to fund these new positions, the subject librarian’s posts, including mine – were abolished, and the post holders were encouraged to apply for the newly-created jobs, and for some posts at LSU including that of Senior Librarian – System Support.
My senior colleague Christopher Phillips, who also worked at LSU  had been implementing from 1995  onwards a new computer-based library management system, called Talis, the product of a Birmingham-based co-operative which in time would handle all aspects of our library business. By the spring of 1998 Talis was live at a small number of libraries. It sat on a unix server located in a cupboard at LSU, and communicated with libraries across a network managed by the Council’s IT team.
Knowing that I had some technical experience in working with PCs, Christopher had begun to introduce me to some Talis-related systems work, despatching me to a course in Birmingham where before having any unix knowledge to speak of, I learned how to run SQL queries on the database and began to ascend a seriously steep learning curve. It was the first of several excursions to Birmingham over the next few years – my favourite mode of transport involved catching the Caledonian Sleeper from Inverness to London Euston, and then transferring to a Birmingham train, and doing the opposite on my return. I rather loved the security of stepping off a platform in the heart of London into a space which, twelve hours later would roll into the familiarity of Inverness Railway Station. I found the motion of the train calming, and somehow I loved hearing the railwaymen working sometime in the middle of the night to separate the train into the various parts going to different Scottish destinations. The staff at the Birmingham Talis office were friendly, but I always felt a little insecure there.
My trips to Birmingham took place because the time of the reorganisation, Christopher was promoted to the post of Libraries and Information Services Co-ordinator, leaving the new Systems Support post vacant. It was by no means certain that I would be appointed to this vacancy, and as I was very keen to remain based in the Inverness area, I also applied for the Inverness and Ross and Cromarty Area Librarians posts, and for another new post, that of Senior Librarian – Information Services. I was interviewed for all four posts. The morning of the Area Librarian interviews, on my walk from the bus stop to the Library Support Unit I took a detour past the front door of Inverness Library, with its imposing colonnade. By this time tomorrow, I thought, I might be in charge there, in a room with my name on it. Although the interviews were in the morning they kept us waiting until late in the afternoon before letting us know who had been successful. My wife Lorna was working that afternoon, so I had to collect our young daughters and take them down to the office were I sat them on a story mat in a corner beside my desk and gave them books to read while I waited. Of course my colleagues who were appointed to the Area Library Officer posts had far more experience in management than I had at that point, but having invested in the hope of success, I felt the sense of rejection keenly. However, a few days later the suspense was over, and I knew I’d be remaining in Inverness as the Systems Support librarian, and so I became, as I called myself, ‘Talisman.’
In the years following my appointment in 1998, the post and its duties continued to evolve. At the start, my role encompassed managing the servers based at the Library Support Unit, supporting the five libraries which had by that point been connected to Talis and arranging for the roll-out of computers to the other libraries and school libraries with Fujitsu, who had taken responsibility for managing the Highland Council’s network. The Talis product had to be maintained and upgraded when new releases of the software became available, and in addition new ancillary products, such as the offline version designed for use on mobile libraries, and the on-line public access catalogue, ever-evolving to take advantage of internet developments had to be tested installed, launched and managed.
I was particularly involved in the development of the Mobile library product: I liaised directly with the developer, and undertook prolonged testing as we identified and ironed out bugs in the system of which there were many due to the complexity of getting an offline database to integrate with the live database when there are so many variables involved.
I have never reached the summit of that learning curve which I began to traverse at that SQL course in Birmingham. Not just my technical skills,  but my interpersonal skills have developed as I came to lead a four-strong team managing various aspects of IT within the library service, including a meticulous statistician who produces reports on our performance with an attention to detail sometimes so single-minded and focussed that I had to gently remind him that the work we’re doing matters more than the statistics rather than the other way round, and a perceptive senior library assistant who worries away at the detail and draws our attention to realities we may have overlooked in dreaming expansive dreams. I found the job extremely satisfying.  And when the colleague who had set up the network of public access computers in HLH libraries left in a restructuring, his post sadly deleted, I took over responsibility for these computers.
Whereas not all of my library colleagues acknowledged the significance of my previous education role, all of them recognised that the Talis Team’s role was central to their work, and that recognition, together with the satisfaction of being able to help individual colleagues resolve the problems they encounter built a strong sense that what we were doing was worthwhile.
I appreciated having my own area of expertise of which I had a better knowledge than most other people in the Library Service. I don’t mean that I cultivated a sense of mystique and mystery, refusing to share my knowledge and insights with others, simply that it contributed immeasurably to my feelings of self-worth to have a level of understanding which others can’t be expected to have time to gain personally, and to apply that understanding to resolve problems and further develop the service.
I have also found that my mind responds well to the cerebral, analytical approach which working with software calls for. While neither in personal nor working life am I the kind of person who is driven to explore and implement new technology simply because it exists – I have neither the curiosity nor the energy for this – when software can solve a problem, or make it easier for us to accomplish a piece of work, then I will doggedly work at it, pestering the Help Desk until we get it operational.  My approach to IT professionals is to stress that I am a librarian, not an engineer, asking them to bear with me while I express in simple terms what I don’t understand, and then reply to me at an appropriately simple level.
In earlier jobs I complained of a lack of support and training. But whether because the corporate ethos in local government had changed over the years or because The Highland Council had come to place a particular emphasis on staff development I was reasonably well-supported in my Systems Support role. I was always given access to the training, both technical and managerial, which I required to do my work. I particularly appreciated the PDP (personal development plan) process, when you get to sit down with your boss and discuss in an honest and realistic way how you are progressing. I think for the very first time I had a settled sense of being a valued professional.
I remained involved to some extend in other aspects of library work besides the purely IT systems related. I attended regular meetings of the Libraries Network Team, the group of senior staff who make decisions about the management and direction of the Service. While these meetings were over-long and their agendas often too complex, I did feel a sense of privilege in being able to sit round this table and participate in the discussion, and I recognise with some astonishment that I actually had some wisdom to contribute. But I had a growing recognition that my passion was for IT, and while I admired my colleagues’ intense commitment to making a difference to peoples’ lives through library-based activities, I did not fully share it.
When Christopher was promoted to an HQ-based post, the Library and Information Services Co-ordinator post became vacant, and I applied for it, though with some misgivings, for I my heart was telling me that the job wasn’t really ‘me’.  It involved management responsibility for all aspects of the library service, and at that point I wasn’t quite sure I had the confidence to cope with that. But in addition, it seemed to me that the post clearly called for a person of vision – someone who could see the future and call it into being, while I was aware of operating best as a loyal lieutenant embracing an existing vision, and helping to realise it by planning, focus on the detail, and dogged persistence when things went wrong.
However, the vacant post paid more than I was currently earning, and so in the interests of supporting my family as well as possible I decided to apply. I worked extremely hard writing my presentation and researching in preparation for the interview, which took place first thing in the morning. It went well: the panel seemed impressed with what I said, and I was reasonably confident of being appointed. All afternoon I worked away resolutely at my desk awaiting the phone call from Christopher, and as the hours passed without hearing from him, first the suspicion and then the certainty grew that I had been unsuccessful. Eventually, Christopher rang and told me that another colleague, Joyce Watson had been appointed to the post.  Of course I was deeply disappointed, but I quickly came to appreciate at first hand not just Joyce’s abilities and vision, but also the contribution I could make to help translate vision into reality.
In fact I had a taste of Joyce’s job when, while she was out of the office on a prolonged period of sick leave, I  ‘acted up’ for a number of months. The experience made me question how well I could have coped as post-holder in the long term. There are always days when I struggle with my emotions and don’t feel particularly resilient, when I find it hard to think clearly and engage in robust discussion. On days like that, my Systems Co-ordinator post allowed me to find therapy in the routine, and I wonder whether a job which routinely presented a higher level of inter-personal challenge would, ultimately, have worn me down. But on the other hand, I would never, as a young librarian, have imagined I would have the confidence, resilience and strength to do the job which I now not only do well, but relish. It seems to me that my developing confidence over the years has been a slow, evolving miracle, and on my clearer-seeing days I recognise that in this I have been blessed by God.
Increasingly convinced that IT was where I belonged, I applied early in 2010 for a post with The Highland Council’s ICT team as Information and Security Officer. Again, I did extensive reading and preparation for the interview, and probably entertained the interview panel, but I was not unsuccessful – in retrospect I recognise that I did not have the necessary breadth of experience.
In 2010-11 I found myself in a few situations which called for skills beyond my competence level. I found myself giving a presentation in London on a complicated international library cataloguing project attended by cataloguing experts. I gave a colourful and interesting presentation, which was appreciated, but I was conscious only of how uninformed I was compared with the other speakers and delegates.   In an attempt to encourage people in the community to make full use of hand-held devices, and to exploit the range of library services available on line, we set up a couple of ‘Digital Days’ projects, encouraging people to come to the library for guidance in using smartphones and tablets. For the first of these, we signed up an expert to work with us for the duration of the project, but even working with him I felt inadequate to fully tackle the range of issues people presented with at the library.
But I enjoyed these years working as ‘Talisman’ at the Library Support Unit.  As I matured and grew as a person, so I was able to build close relationships and friendships with colleagues, which I much appreciated. In time Talis became Alto (but I remained ‘Talisman’!) , a much more visually-pleasing product though demanding on bandwidth. Over the years the old co-operative became Talis Information Limited, which in turn sold the library management system to Capita. Even though initially the staff remained the same, something was lost with the move from partnership and co-operating to a commercial relationship where the bottom line features too prominently in decision-making.
Again, times were changing. There were further restructures, and in 2011 The Highland Council set up an arms-length organisation, High Life Highland to deliver a range of services including Libraries, Museums and Archives, Youth Development, Adult Education and Leisure. Alan Hoseason was appointed High Life Highland’s ICT manager, and in January 2013 my post was moved from Library Service to the ICT Team. After twenty years at the Library Support Unit, I had a new boss and a new base.