What a pity, having a child like this!

‘What a pity it is, a young couple like you having a child like this!  Do you want to put her in a home?’

Such, forty-three years ago, were the words of a paediatrician meeting for the first time the parents of a Down’s syndrome child.  It was only by accident, and only gradually, they had discovered that their new baby was different.  The day they left the hospital the nurse who accompanied them to the car had parted with the words, ‘’If you need help in any way, don’t hesitate to call us.’  The tone of voice, they had thought, was odd, even ominous.  Then a friend mentioned to another friend how sad it was about Annie Mary’s baby, and so the story spread, until one day yet another friend called to express her sympathy.

Eventually, they made an appointment with the doctor, who told them they had to accept that the child was ‘different’.  ‘How can you tell that she’s “different”?’ they asked.  ‘How can you tell a Labrador is a Labrador?’ he replied.

Up to this point, there had been no professional attempt to break the news, explain its meaning or offer counselling.  Now the doctor began to spell out the meaning of ‘different’, and particularly all the things the child would never be able to do.

It was at that point that resolve asserted itself: ‘I’ll prove that man wrong.’

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Brian Wilson and the Free Press

Most of the pieces posted on this blog began life as pieces in my ‘Footnotes’ column in the West Highland Free Press.  The whole world now knows that that column is no more; and thanks to Brian Wilson, they also know the reason why.  Via a phone-call from the Editor, the paper’s owners (its staff) put me on a warning.  I had crossed a line, and there must be no repeat.  There was little point in writing if I couldn’t say what I thought, and so, with only as much hesitation as was decent, I gave it up.

I saw no reason at the time why either the paper or I should have to explain my disappearance from its pages.  At an early stage, however, the Editor came to the view that something would have to be said, and drafted a short news item which expressed appreciation of my services, but also conveyed the impression that I had simply decided the time had come.  I pointed out that this was not exactly true, and the item never appeared.

Brian clearly shared the Editor’s view that some explanation had to be given, and the result was the column which led to his being dismissed.  This dismissal, in turn, provoked another esteemed columnist, Maggie Cunningham, to decide she could no longer be associated with the paper.

My disappearance might have raised a few eyebrows in Adabrock: Brian’s sacking placed the Free Press in the national spotlight.  Then, as if all this weren’t enough, the paper published a statement which raised the astonishment to even higher levels.  For Brian, it was deeply offensive; for me, it was profoundly embarrassing.

At the core of the statement lay a flagrant contradiction.  The paper said it regretted losing me, but they had no regrets about losing Mr Wilson.  This was appallingly dismissive of a man to whom they owed literally everything.  Yet his only crime was to express his regret that the paper was losing me: a regret the paper professed to share.

The paper construed his column otherwise, accusing him of ‘putting the boot in’.  Few who read what he actually wrote would have gathered that impression.  He did not accuse the paper of denying me freedom of speech.  He merely said that I ‘considered’ that I was being denied freedom of speech.  He also recognised the rights of the owners: every columnist, as he put it, is a guest in the house, and has to abide by its rules.  And at the same time he also (with some pride) complimented the paper on being the only one in Britain prepared to print the sort of stuff I was writing.

I am grateful that for twenty-four years it gave me this freedom.  But in doing so it merely reflected the culture of courageous forthrightness which Brian had established in the paper from the very beginning.  In the language of the statement itself, the Free Press had always ‘pushed the envelope’.

What is now going on behind the scenes at the Free Press is none of my business.  All that concerns me is that a great paper has brought shame and confusion on itself by its shabby treatment of its honoured founder.



North African migrants and the future of Europe

The flow of migrants from North Africa into southern Europe is no new thing.  It has been going on for decades, but now it’s become the stuff of tragedy as thousands cram into tiny vessels scarcely fit for a mill-pond and head off across two hundred miles of treacherous sea.

Europe is suddenly caught in a dilemma.  Will it rage against illegal immigrants, or weep over the loss of thousands of lives?   But behind the dilemma there is also guilt.  For centuries we Europeans shamelessly took advantage of freedom of movement to turn up unbidden and unwelcome on other shores, killing native inhabitants, destroying their culture and plundering their treasures.

Today, people of European origin dominate Canada, the United States, Brazil, Argentina, New Zealand and Australia.  From the ‘Mayflower’ to the ‘Metagama’, migration, driven by poverty, has been a key factor in our history.  Deep-down, then, we know the heart of a migrant and the curious paradox of a mind that is filled with ‘cianalas’ and yet knows it could never forsake the comforts of central heating and air-conditioning for the romance of a peat-fire.

Europe’s movers and shakers are now calling for a concerted response to the migrant crisis, but this has not been the only note.  Influential voices have also suggested that the migrants are part of a coherent plan to increase the Muslim presence in Europe, and this is even being linked to predictions that within twenty-five years Britain will be a predominantly Muslim country.  Yet, while for all the years of the Cold War we trembled at the spectre of Communism and the thought of ‘Reds under the bed’, no-one seems to be taking the Islamic threat seriously.

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The Cry of Dereliction

‘And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’

Up to this point the narrative of the crucifixion has focused on the physical sufferings of Jesus: the flogging, the crown of thorns, and his immolation on the cross.  Six hours have now passed since the nails were driven home.  The crowd have jeered, darkness has covered the land, and now, suddenly, after a long silence, comes this anguished cry from the depths of the Saviour’s soul.

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Defending jihadists


Britain’s Muslims have us all living on a knife-edge, desperately trying to find a compromise between saying it as we see it on the one hand, and avoiding offence to the followers of the Prophet on the other.  The BBC, clearly terrified of being accused of bias, seems to assign every terrorist-related story to a Muslim member of staff, conveying the impression that at least half the population are of this persuasion; and whether appearing on screen or before a Parliamentary Committee every Muslim family has to be accompanied by a lawyer of their own faith, presumably to intimidate interviewers (and send out signals to their co-religionists).

It gladdened the heart, then, to hear Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, tell Muslims to stop apologising for jihadists.  It was an appropriate response to those who, a few days before, had been blaming the security services for turning that nice boy, Mohammed Emwazi, into the brutal executioner, Jihadi John.  The police and MI5 clearly had good grounds for keeping him under surveillance and, with hindsight, the only complaint must be that they did not harass him enough.  In any case, could any personal grievance justify a man gloating on camera as he hacks-off an aid-worker’s head with a bread-knife?  This is a man whom every self-respecting Muslim will disown without hesitation or qualification.

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Scottish theologians and the doctrine of the church (1): Presbyterianism

The area which above all others captured the attention of Scotland’s Reformed theologians was the doctrine of the church.  This was especially true of the 17th century, but the 19th century also produced a voluminous literature, including James MacPherson’s splendid overview, The Doctrine of the Church in Scottish Theology.  It is here, too, that Scottish theology achieves its greatest international significance.  Calvinism as a world movement has two great branches, the Dutch and the Scottish, the former represented by the Dutch Reformed family, the latter by the Presbyterian.  Today, the Presbyterian family is thoroughly established in North America,Australia,New Zealand, Africa,Korea,Japan and indeed wherever the gospel has been carried by the missionary advance of the last two centuries.  Inevitably, the children no longer cling to their mother’s apron-strings, yet all acknowledge that their roots are in the Scottish Reformation and that they inherited their principles, more or less complete, from their Scoto-Irish spiritual forebears.

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The cross: God’s altar

Every believer has some theology of the atonement.  Faith, after all, is trust in a crucified Saviour, and without some understanding such faith is impossible.  Faith knows from the beginning who died on the cross, and it knows, too, why he died.  He died for our sins.

But faith can never be content with such elementary knowledge.  It wants to live its whole life at the foot of the cross, seeking with every passing day to understand it better.

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Is Allah God?

Many centuries have passed since there was any meaningful dialogue between Muslims and Christians, mainly because the two religions are like chalk and cheese.  Christianity is a profoundly theological faith: Islam, like Judaism, is a way of life.  Jews have the Torah, Muslims have Sharia, but while both appear to build on the Old Testament, the two sets of laws have diverged widely.  There is no parallel in Judaism to Islam’s attitudes towards women, nor would Judaism tolerate the thousand-lash floggings which besmirch the name of Saudi Arabia; something we should stop condoning on the principle, ‘It’s a sovereign state, and that’s their way.’  In Verwoerd’s South Africa, apartheid was their way, and the world responded with crippling sanctions.  Why go pussy-footing around Saudi Arabia?

Anyway, as I was going to say, because Islam is first and foremost a way of life it has no detailed theology of, for example, sin and salvation; and where it does venture into theology it is usually only to deny Christian beliefs.

Which is not to say but that there are things we seem to agree on, not least with regard to Jesus.  Muslims agree that he was born of a virgin, that he performed wondrous miracles of healing, that he raised the dead, and that he was a great prophet: indeed, next to Mohammed, the very greatest.

Yet when all is said and done, Islamic theology is much more negative than positive.  It’s a theology of denial, and the most remarkable of its denials is that Christ was never crucified.  God, it is claimed, would never have allowed such a fate to befall a great prophet.  Instead, he was taken up to heaven, and some other man was crucified in his place (some have suggested it was Judas Iscariot).

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Seasonal greetings and Christian values

In their recent Seasonal Messages the leaders of all our main political parties called in one way or another for a return to Christian values.  It wasn’t always clear whether these values included belief in a deity, but the party-leaders were unanimous about charity.  Perhaps they would also want to include humility?  This would be a fine thing.  After all, it was of this grace that Augustine said that it was the first thing in Christianity, and the second thing, and the third thing; and if our leaders espouse it we are left with an alluring picture of Messrs Cameron, Milliband and Clegg standing outside No. 10 each saying to the other, ‘After you!’ (with a wistful Mr. Salmond looking on).

But humility comes at a price.  Thinking others better than yourself and putting their interests before your own doesn’t come to any of us naturally, and least of all to politicians.  Humility is not an act, but an attitude of mind.  It is the willingness to be nothing, and it’s no guarantee of a Nobel Peace Prize.  In fact, the only man who ever really exemplified it ended up being crucified, and that wasn’t just by the press.

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The Spirit of Christmas

The trouble with Christmas is that it reminds me of all the people who are not going to enjoy it: Alistair Cooke, the sacked England cricket-captain; a friend recently diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease; North Sea oil-workers facing unemployment; Syrian refugees; Christians in Iranian jails; the victims of ancient hatreds in the country of Jesus’ birth.

Yet there is still the magic of it. It’s been a couple of years since I last hanged my stocking, modern Christmas-puddings no longer contain threepenny-bits, I can’t see much hope of going sledging down the moor, trousers frozen hard from knees to boots, and even if I do get an apple, an orange and a bottle of lemonade they won’t taste the same as they did in 1947, when an oxo-cube was a treat.  But there is still the joy of sending letters to Santa telling him I’d like socks; the joy of seeing others glad with what he’s brought them; the luxury of a day when you can do nothing, with the tacit approval of conscience; the turkey which is ‘perfectly cooked’ even when it isn’t, and tastes better than a Bronze even though it’s only a Frozen.

And, above all, the carols: ringing in my head ever since Primary Three, and now ringing out at Classic FM, Free Church carol-services, and school-concerts where Buddhists, Muslims and Edinburgh City councillors join happily with Christians in singing of ‘our heavenly Lord, that with his blood mankind hath bought’.

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