Equal, utterly equal

At the airport in Dhaka, Bangladesh, I’d gone through most of the official preliminaries before departure: passport and boarding pass examined, hold baggage handed over. Next came security. The line at the security desk was long. But I’m British, so I queued patiently.

And then I saw the security officer wave. It was one of those times you wonder ‘Who’s he waving at?’ Then I heard him shout, ‘Sir, sir, come to the desk’. He was talking to me.

So I squeezed past the twenty or more Bangladeshis ahead of me, wondering what I’d done or was carrying that a security officer was summoning me. He asked for my documents and then he smiled. Then and only then, I realised I was being given priority. If I’d been flying business class, I’d have been at a different desk, so that wasn’t the explanation. Was the officer hoping for a ‘gift’ from me? That had happened in several countries, but not this time. I’d been promoted up the queue simply because I was a white westerner. For a moment I thought of protesting and retreating back down the line. But I couldn’t. For one thing the officer had my documents and was well through processing them. For another, I’d likely have offended or embarrassed the officer. So, a minute later, I thanked him and moved on to the departure lounge, feeling ten per cent grateful for avoiding a long wait and ninety per cent guilty for being privileged.

In colonial times deference was demanded for white people. It became normative, and lasted for a while even after independence. Now it’s mostly gone, though not at Dhaka airport when I passed through. I wish preference based on skin colour or background was entirely gone. I no more deserve honour because of my colour than someone else deserves dishonour because of their colour. We’re equal, utterly equal.

That’s how I was brought up, though I admit my youngest years may have been innocent of colour prejudice because our town had hardly any non-white people. A small place near the east coast of Scotland wasn’t a destination for immigrants from the West Indies or anywhere. I still have class photos from my earliest school years and every face is white. About once a year a black family would attend our church while they were visiting relatives. They had two children, and I played with them just like any other children. No-one ever suggested I shouldn’t.

When I was 18 I worked in Glasgow for seven months, and I rented a room in the west end of the city. The population mix could not have been  more different from my small-town. I was surrounded by Pakistanis. Not all spoke English, and occasionally I couldn’t make out what was being said by those who could, because the accent was so different. I felt guilty about that, but, there again, I had the same problem with native-born Glaswegians. I loved being there: the brightness of the ladies’ clothes; the smells of food from shops and cafés; the cheerful greetings I was given. But, sadly, I soon learned others didn’t share my positive views. The usual resentments and prejudices about immigrants were freely shared on buses and underground.

I was reminded of my Glasgow experience about 25 years later when I was guest preacher at a church in the north of England. The area where the church had met for a century was now Muslim-majority. After the service there was a lunch in the church hall, and I sat talking with some of the older members. In fact there were almost no younger members; membership had declined a long way. So, casually, I asked, ‘What’s been the biggest problem you’ve faced over the years?’ The answer was immediate. ‘The Pakistanis. They’re the problem’. Politely, I challenged that answer. But talking about the ‘new neighbours’ as an opportunity and not a problem didn’t get me far. Everything was different from how it used to be – too different for their comfort – and that was ‘the problem’.

I’m no scholar when it comes to racism, and especially in a blog piece I could neither explain nor solve such a difficult problem. But I’ll share three things I’ve thought about often.

Racism is not new    The last few chapters of the book of Genesis in the Old Testament tell the story of Joseph being sold by his brothers to traders, made a slave in Egypt, but soon becoming Pharaoh’s right-hand man and governor of the whole land. Eventually his whole family are brought to Egypt to save them from famine. They’re welcomed and given the best land on which to settle. Sadly, it didn’t last. The opening of Exodus describes how new rulers came to power in Egypt, conspiracy theories were spread about the Israelites, and they were made slaves and given hard labour. Why pick on the Israelites? First, they weren’t Egyptians. Second, their culture wasn’t the same. Third, they had another religion. In other words, they were from another race and lived differently. So they were oppressed.

That was a very long time ago, but racism existed before then, and has continued down through every century since.

The caste system – primarily a feature of cultures related to the Indian sub-continent – is not the same as racism. (For example, different castes can exist within one racial group.) But race and caste issues both involve prejudice and discrimination. The origins of the system are ancient, but formalised later and then incorporated by the British Raj from the 1860s into their form of administration. In Pakistan I had tea in a café where the low-caste customers were forced to use cups different from those used by higher-caste people. Christians in rural areas debated whether all castes could sit together when lunch was served after the church service. Some would, some wouldn’t. In south east India, I visited aid projects set up after the devastating 2004 tsunami. Many of the lowest-caste people, the Dalits, had suffered badly because they lived close to the sea. My colleagues and I spent time with them, and one evening invited their leaders to eat with us in a hotel restaurant. We were all seated when the management asked the Dalits to leave. They’d had complaints from other guests. We protested, but our Dalit friends immediately asked us to stop and let them leave. We did, realising that we wouldn’t suffer later but they might.

In Thailand I was puzzled to see that labourers repairing roads were wearing balaclava masks (ski-type masks), even though they were working in the blazing sun. I asked a local ‘Why do they wear them? They must be unbearably hot’. I was told they wanted to stop their skin darkening, because the blacker their skin the lower their status. In north west Africa I came across the same prejudice. One darker-skinned tribe were treated as slaves by those with lighter skin.

Racism is centuries and even millennia old, and exists across almost the whole world. That’s no comfort as we seek solutions in our own cultures. We could think the cause hopeless, but it’s only hopeless if we give up. Racism may be old but it doesn’t have to live forever.

Racism is not a black/white colour prejudice   In the western world we tend to see it that way, but often it has nothing to do with skin colour. In the 1840s, Ireland experienced deadly famine. Two million Irish emigrated to America, but were met with prejudice and sometimes violence for being foreigners and, especially, for being Catholics. They looked much the same as the large numbers of Germans also arriving in the US, but their treatment was very different. Every now and again in the UK, I hear strong invective against immigrants from Eastern Europe. There’s no colour difference. Just difference.

There are several reasons why people fear immigrants. The one that makes me grimace but want to smile is that ‘immigrants will change our culture’. I’d like to ask, ‘When did the UK have just one culture?’ Don’t the ‘nations’ have very distinctive cultures? Even within England, aren’t the Geordies of the north east very culturally different from the Cornish of the south west, and both very different from the Cockneys of London? We’re not all the same, and never have been. Nor has the UK been surrounded by a 50 metre high wall for centuries so we couldn’t leave and others couldn’t enter. People have come and gone, settled and left, for ever.

Just above I described prejudice against Irish immigrants arriving in the USA 150 years ago. Now their descendants are a celebrated part of the ‘melting pot’ that makes up the nation. In fact many people told me ‘I’m Irish’ or ‘I’m Swedish’ or ‘I’m Italian’, and I’d have offended them if I’d said, ‘No you’re not, you’re American’. They’re proud, very proud, of their ethnic background, now all together in a new land. There is, of course, resistance to new waves of immigrants, the old pattern repeating, so it’s not a nation singing in perfect harmony, but, for many, diversity is their strength.

No-one is born racist    I wrote earlier that through all my childhood I never encountered racism. It just wasn’t part of my world.

Not everyone has so privileged a background except this part: no-one comes into this world prejudiced against others. There isn’t a racist neuron in the brain that gets switched on as we’re born.

So, where does racism come from? I believe it’s either taught or caught. It’s taught when a parent, or a friend, or a teacher, or a political leader, spouts racist views, and a young mind adopts their prejudices. Racism can be caught when, without words, actions and attitudes convey the message: black neighbours are shunned, violence against non-whites is accepted, support is given for policies that discriminate. What young people see around them as normal and acceptable becomes part of their thinking from early years, long before their intellects are mature enough to question what’s going on.

I’m aware of the view that a fear reflex is hard-wired in our brains, a protective reaction against the unknown or different, because what we don’t yet know to be safe may be unsafe. It could harm us, so we reject it. I’m no geneticist, but I can’t see why a fear reflex would be racist. ‘Difference’ isn’t only about nationality or colour. I’m not suspicious of people who are tall or short, thin or fat, nor do I care about social status, or accent, or educational attainment, no matter how different any of those are from me. My fear reflex doesn’t shun them. So why would I shun someone because he’s a different colour or from a different culture?

I’m also familiar with the ‘nature or nurture’ debate about childhood behaviour. Two kids from the same background may turn out very different, and likely their unique genetic mix and young experiences both contributed. But no baby was born racist. It’s not a ‘given’ at birth. Racism may come later, but it’s never inevitable.

Well, forgive me please if anything I’ve written this time is insensitive or simplistic. I wrote about racism because I hear it expressed, see terrible examples on the news, and because I think it’s one of the worst sins people can commit. As usual, if you find any wisdom, that’s great. If you don’t, move on and be at peace.

Lastly, thank you for patience while I had a major study project to complete before an immovable deadline. I didn’t finish with a lot of time to spare, but it was done. Now I need two things. One, to catch up on missed sleep. Two, for my assignment markers to be having such a good day they’re incredibly generous!

When Alistair met Eve

I phoned home and Alison listened carefully as I explained the situation. Then silence. For a little too long. Then, slowly, Alison said, ‘So last week you climbed Lochnagar, got lost in the mist, and nearly died. This week you climbed Lochnagar, found a woman, and you’re bringing her home.’

‘Yes, that sums it up,’ I replied.

Seems like I need to explain what led up to that conversation, and what followed from that conversation.

If you’ve read the last two blogs, you’ll know that I climbed Lochnagar, a 1155 metres (3789 ft) mountain not too far from our Aberdeen home. I should never have gone all the way to the mist-shrouded summit because visibility was no more than two or three metres. But I got up. What I couldn’t do was find a safe way down. I’d no compass to plot a path between cliffs one side and a large and dangerous wilderness on the other side. Amazingly, and some would say miraculously, at my third attempt a footprint between rocks pointed me in the right direction and I escaped the mountain.

Afterwards I was angry at my foolishness. I’d told no-one where I was going; I had no equipment for the climb, nor emergency provisions like a whistle or survival blanket; I should never have attempted to reach the top through the mist. Now my anger made me determined to do the climb again, this time properly prepared.

So I went shopping. I already had a good jacket, boots and map, but there was plenty more to buy: warm gloves, mid layer fleece, windproof hat, compass, book on how to use compass and map together, survival blanket, decent small rucksack to carry it all. I was ready for my next venture one week after the first.

This time Alison was well-informed where I was going. When I parked the car, I wrote a note of the route I’d take up the mountain, the time I was setting off, contact details, and placed the note in an ‘emergency box’. Then off I went along the track, over the stream, and up the first stage of Lochnagar.

Again it was a beautiful, sunny day. The views were majestic across the heather to distant hills. Deer roamed freely, paying me no attention whatsoever. This was their mountain.

Just short of the ‘shoulder’ between Lochnagar and its neighbouring mountain, I saw another climber ahead. I was walking quicker so we met at the point overlooking the small loch below Lochnagar’s cliffs. We exchanged friendly greetings. Her name was Eve, an American from about as far away as you can get in mainland USA, Washington State, in the northwest corner of the country. She’d climbed a few other Scottish mountains but never Lochnagar. I, of course, was a veteran. So I pointed up to Lochnagar’s peak which, thankfully, was perfectly clear against a background of blue sky. That’s where we were both going.

Understandably, then, we set off together up the rocky slope, an area I’d hardly seen the previous week because of thick mist. Now I realised just how steep it was. Slip, and you might not stop for a long time. Both of us were soon out of breath, so conversation was limited.

But once on the stone-covered plateau at the top, and we’d each caught our breath, the going was easier and conversation resumed. Eve was a doctor, not long fully qualified, working somewhere not far from Seattle. I explained I was a Baptist minister from Aberdeen and a Scot born and bred.

We made our way slowly towards the summit, occasionally peering carefully over the cliffs. Eve wanted me to take her photo standing on the edge, so she walked out on a protruding rock while I retreated to a place where I could picture her and the sheer drop beneath where she stood. I much preferred where I was to where she was.

We moved on and reached the peak. Both of us had brought something to eat and drink, and in the near-warmth of the sunshine, we sat on stones admiring the view and eating our lunches.

Of course we talked. I told her about my wife and children, about my work as a pastor in the city. Eve talked about her trip across the Atlantic, which she was happy to be doing alone. She’d seen other parts of Scotland, and now the climb up Lochnagar was the last event of her great adventure. She’d pitched her one-person tent on the campsite at nearby Ballater, and planned to pack up and catch a country bus to Aberdeen around 6.00 next morning. Less than a half hour after reaching the city, she’d get on a coach for the 550-mile journey to London, and a few hours after that she’d be on the plane back to the USA.

The plan was perfect in principle, but not so perfect in the real world. I explained that country buses in the Scottish Highlands didn’t always run exactly to stated timetables, and there was a risk she might not be in Aberdeen bus station before the London bus left. Eve didn’t say much. She had to catch that long-distance coach and the country bus was her only way of getting there early in the morning.

I gave her another choice. ‘You’d be welcome to come back to our home, sleep overnight, and I’ll take you to the bus station in the morning.’

I don’t recall Eve saying anything at that point. Which was not surprising, since we’d only met on the mountain and I might be telling all sorts of lies to lure her into danger. I don’t think I looked like an axe-murderer, but, there again, what does an axe-murderer look like?

We talked some more about other things, finished eating, and began our descent. This time the first part was a simple stroll because I could see where I was going, which would be neither over the cliffs, nor a drift away into ‘no man’s land’.

As we walked Eve said, ‘Your wife really wouldn’t mind having an unexpected overnight guest?’

‘No, not at all. She’d be delighted,’ I replied with super-confidence.

‘Well, if you’re sure…’

‘I’m sure.’

‘Thank you. I’m very grateful.’

So, down the rocky slope and then the gentle track we went back to my car. We drove to Ballater, found a phone box, and I called Alison. The conversation I quoted at the beginning of this blog post really happened, but it’s only fair to say there was a hint of amusement in Alison’s voice. Over the years she’d grown used to surprises, including handkerchiefs returning in the post from women I’d reduced to tears. (The tears were because they’d become upset during counselling and I’d given them my handkerchief.)

Alison was genuinely okay that I should bring Eve back with me, and said she’d adjust her plan for our evening meal with the family.

I took Eve to the campsite where she collapsed her tent, gathered her possessions, and off to Aberdeen we went. Eve was delightful company that evening, and very appreciative of a home-cooked meal.

She slept well, and I made sure next morning that she reached the bus station in plenty time for her London-bound coach. A few weeks later we received a letter from Eve, thanking us, and enclosing a photo of her standing on a rock above the cliffs. (We didn’t keep contact. I hope she’s still climbing mountains and is having the brilliant medical career she deserves in Washington State or wherever else she’s gone.)

Looking for wisdom in this tale could come by asking some questions of ourselves.

How well do we cope when circumstances change?  I am blessed with a wife who adjusts to new situations. For example, while I was a pastor in Aberdeen we never knew how many would be with us for Sunday lunch. After the church service, we’d find students looking lost or looking hopeful, and invite them back for a meal and to spend the rest of the afternoon with the family if they wanted. So, Alison would get home, raid the freezer, and prepare food for somewhere between six and sixteen people. Jesus fed five thousand. Alison can’t do that, but has remarkable abilities to stretch resources so that everyone enjoys a great meal.

It’s not everyone who has the ability to do that, and the attitude to cope with needing to do that. The ability isn’t much use without the attitude, because people soon pick up when they’re not welcome or putting you to a lot of trouble.

Those who must have control need to know what’s happening and when it’s happening. They require order. There’s strength in that, but also weakness. So, a gentle challenge: how well do we cope when circumstances change?

How open are we to helping complete strangers?  We didn’t know Eve before that day. But she came to our home, ate a meal with the family, slept overnight, and was taken to the bus station next morning. Why do that for Eve? Because she needed help. Her plan to get an early bus to the city might have worked out, but there was more than a fair chance it wouldn’t. That would have caused huge problems for the last part of her stay in the UK. So we helped. It really was as simple as that.

Being helpful and hospitable is good. Hospitality, in fact, is commanded in the New Testament (Romans 12:13). But it’s a command not always noticed or practised. Which is a shame, not just for those who miss out on our kindness but for us who miss meeting wonderful people. How open are we to helping complete strangers?

Why do some people behave rashly?  That’s not a question about why I invited Eve to stay the night with my family. It’s a question about why my whole Lochnagar adventures happened at all. Why would someone considered sensible and trustworthy set off so appallingly unprepared to climb a mountain? Not telling anyone where he was going? Choosing to keep going to a summit blanketed in mist? Why?

The answer is that I was depressed. I was hardly sleeping at night, couldn’t think straight, didn’t believe my life was useful or that I mattered, and much more. My doctor had ‘signed me off work’ two months before I headed for Lochnagar. On that day I didn’t deliberately tell no-one where I was going, nor intend to get lost in the mist, and of course I tried desperately to get off the mountain. I wasn’t trying to die. But I was being stupidly reckless. And that was because I was depressed.

Not everyone who behaves rashly is depressed. Of course not. But out-of-character behaviour often has a back-story, something deeply troubling but not told or obvious. Before we condemn their behaviour, we might stop and wonder if something unknown is giving rise to that behaviour. Instead of judgment, they may need compassion.

Three last footnotes.

First, thank you for bearing with a certain amount of indulgence in my writing about these Lochnagar experiences. Although it’s ancient history now, the feelings of that day are remarkably fresh. And, perhaps, there’s been something therapeutic in telling the story. Your patience and interest is appreciated.

Second, my congregation knew why I was away from my normal church duties. I hadn’t believed I could have depression until my doctor very firmly gave me that diagnosis, and said I wouldn’t get well unless I stepped away from work. I preached the following Sunday, and then told the congregation I had depression and needed to be off work for a while. I was met with nothing but kindness, understanding and sympathy. I thought my absence would be for two weeks, but it was five months, and the depression lasted much longer than that. One day I’ll write more about those times.

Third, I have a large project to complete and less than two weeks to do it, so I won’t try and write a blog right in the middle. Hopefully the next one will appear around the end of this month. Again, your patience is appreciated.

Escape from Lochnagar

I’m in trouble. The last blog post included an unfinished account of being lost up a mountain in mist, trapped between steep cliffs on one side and miles of wilderness on the other. One of my daughters said, ‘You can’t leave us with a cliff-hanger like that!’ (Very ‘punny’.)

With a son and three daughters I’ve long since learned to refuse their pleadings. But this time it’s fair to make me complete the story. I don’t often explain how I got down the mountain because it’s always seemed strange. So please accept that while I can explain what happened, I can’t explain why it happened.

First, a quick recap to set the scene. Without telling anyone where I was going, I set off one bright morning to climb Lochnagar, a 1155 metres (3789 ft) mountain, about 50 miles from our home in Aberdeen. I was stupidly unprepared. Apart from boots and a jacket, the only sensible thing I had with me was a map. Without a compass, the map had limited use. I should never have gone to Lochnagar’s summit because, from lower down, I’d seen that it was shrouded in mist. But I hadn’t come that far to turn back, and I made it to the top. Getting down was the problem. Visibility was only two or three metres at best, and I knew from the map there were deadly cliffs off to my left, and miles of wilderness off to my right. Lochnagar’s summit perches on top of a plateau of rock, so there was no trail to follow. Twice I set off, was quickly lost, and sensibly didn’t keep going but returned to the top. (A summit is always ‘up’ so I knew which way to go.) My third attempt at a descent was worse. Again I was lost within minutes, then walked into a boulder, and fell over it hurting my leg. I knew that if I’d broken my leg I’d have died. No-one knew I was there; no-one was coming to rescue me.

This is the point when I stopped last week’s story. So, what happened next?

I was wet, cold and hurting. All these would only get worse if I stayed still. I had to move. Very carefully I took some steps, pausing after each one. The mist was so impenetrable I knew that if I walked at any pace I’d fall over the cliff edge before I could stop. Step by step I eased forward, with no idea at all which way I was going. The plateau of rock was near flat, so I didn’t even know for sure I was going down. And, if I was, going where? Towards the cliffs, or into miles of barren land?

That thought triggered my memory of an old hymn. No-one else was going to hear, so I sang out loud the opening lines.

Guide me O thou Great Jehovah,

Pilgrim through this barren land;

I am weak, but thou art mighty;

Hold me with thy powerful hand.

Exactly as I sang those words I glanced down and saw a footprint. I couldn’t believe it. I’d been walking on rock where there were no footprints. But right here – in one tiny patch of ground between rocks – was earth with a boot-sized footprint.

The tread of that climber’s boot pointed partly left from the line I’d been on (as if towards 10 on a clock). Surely whoever left that tread mark was also going down this mountain. I turned in the direction the footprint pointed and walked. After only two minutes something moderately large loomed out of the mist. I edged closer. It was a cairn, a triangular pile of stones. Cairns are built at the summit of mountains, but also beside trails so walkers can find their way in blizzard or misty conditions. Seeing that cairn was the best possible thing that could happen. I was going the right way.

I knew there would be more cairns, but the mist was unrelentingly impenetrable and other cairns would be at least ten metres away, further than I could see. I’d have to leave one cairn to find the next. But staying where I was wasn’t an option. I took about three steps, looked back and my cairn was gone. Another step, and another, another, another. Had I gone the wrong way? Then, through the mist, I saw a shape, got closer and found another cairn. So the descent began, leaving one cairn behind in the mist in hope that the next cairn would appear through the mist. As I moved off the plateau, the cairns stopped but now I could see a faint trail. I edged my way very cautiously because I was now on a severely steep slope and a fall would propel me over rocky ground down the side of the mountain. The result would be at least broken bones and unconsciousness. I’d be unlikely to survive.

But I made it down that slope. I stepped out of the wall of mist into sunlight. Over to my left I could see the cliffs and the loch below them, and to my right the track I needed to follow down the rest of the mountain. It was all the same as when I arrived, the highest third of Lochnagar blanketed with mist, but clear skies and good visibility below. Back on the main path, I made easy progress down the hill, back to my car, drove to nearby Ballater and called home to Alison. She was amazingly calm. ‘I was wondering how to tell the police my husband hadn’t returned from a walk. They’d have asked where he’d gone, and all I could have told them was somewhere west, and they’d have pointed out that everything inland from the Aberdeen coastline is west. They wouldn’t have known where to start looking for you.’

I returned home, penitent, relieved and angry. Penitent about my utter foolishness, making Alison worry whether I was hurt or lost, and not knowing how she could help. Relieved, of course, because I hadn’t died and had come back to my family. And angry for the utter mess I’d made of climbing Lochnagar. I was so angry that within a couple of days I decided I had to climb it again – which I did exactly one week after the first expedition. And that ascent also ended in a wholly unexpected way, but that story is for the next blog post.

So, what wisdom comes out of this story?

First, know when to cut your losses. My near-death experience on Lochnagar was completely avoidable. I’d told no-one where I was going. I didn’t have the experience or the equipment to climb a high mountain. And I should never have gone to the summit.

On that last point, there was a moment of decision when I made the wrong decision. I stood on ground overlooking the loch and gazed up towards a summit I couldn’t see because everything above me was in thick mist. I thought, ‘I’ve come this far. I’m not turning back now’. That thought could have killed me.

There’s a name for a mistake like that: it’s called the ‘sunk cost fallacy’. A cost is ‘sunk’ when it’s already been spent. The ‘fallacy’ is when it’s clear that stopping the plan or project at mid-point is best, but you carry on because of the large investment already made.

Close to where I grew up large amounts of money were spent creating a new mine. The talk was of 100 years of coal being dug out of the ground. A major ‘new town’ was built close by to provide homes for the workers. But miners from other local pits warned that a colliery in that place would flood. But a huge investment had already been made, so construction went ahead. The mine did flood, and production ceased after only five years. Those in charge had moments when they could have stopped, but they didn’t. So much had already been invested.

I should have stopped, and walked back down Lochnagar as soon as I saw that the summit was shrouded in mist. Determination to keep going was not my friend. It could have killed me. Wisdom lies in knowing when to stop, when to cut your losses. Danger lies ahead for those who won’t rethink their plans.

Second, we can’t always explain or define our experiences. What exactly happened that allowed me to live? The obvious facts are easy: I tried to descend twice and got lost; I tried a third time and got lost again, but started singing a hymn about God’s guidance, suddenly saw a boot print, followed its direction, found cairns, and got on the trail that took me to safety. At one level that’s what happened.

But at another level I don’t know what happened. Many Christians would say I experienced a miracle. God heard me, and in his mercy gave me a sign that pointed me to safety. I believe in miracles, so that could be true.

But I hesitate to claim that. Why? I have two reasons.

First, my escape felt miraculous but I’ve never been sure if that’s the right word for what happened. There were certainly remarkable factors: singing that hymn, and immediately seeing a highly unlikely boot print which pointed me to a cairn which led me to other cairns and to safety. Each of these is ordinary, but what’s extraordinary is how they came together at my moment of greatest need. Was that just a coincidence? I can’t say it was, yet I still hold back from calling it a miracle. I didn’t see a vision. I didn’t hear a voice telling me which direction to take. If I had, I’d be thinking in ‘miracle’ terms. I’d have no other explanation. But there are other explanations for a boot print in earth and a cairn on the mountain. So – without in any way denying God’s mercy to me – I want to be cautious in my language about the experience.

Second, many others who climb Scotland’s mountains get into trouble but no miracle saves them. They slip and fall, or get buried in an avalanche, or get lost and die from hyperthermia. But I didn’t die, and I can’t think of any reason why I should be saved by a miracle and they weren’t. I didn’t deserve it, for if miracles are a matter of deserving, there’d be none. No-one is good enough. And I wasn’t especially spiritual or trusting that day. I was frightened – the most likely outcome was death. In short, there’s no reason why God should show me any special favour more than others, so I’m slow to use the word ‘miracle’ about my escape.

These thoughts also remain with me:

I am immensely grateful to have lived that day. We should be thankful for every good thing whether we understand it or not.

I lived, and that allowed me to do more with my life. The next day is never guaranteed to anyone, so the time we have should be lived well and used well.

Bad experiences teach us important lessons. I’ve climbed many mountains since, but never again without letting others know where I was going and carrying the right equipment. (I even bought an ice axe – that’s taking things seriously!) The old saying that the one thing we learn from history is that no-one learns from history doesn’t have to be true at the personal level. We can learn, and we probably learn more from tough times than easy times.

Next week the final story about Lochnagar and what (or who?) I brought home to Alison.

When your car number plate really matters

We were looking forward to our holiday. Along with church ministry in Aberdeen, I’d been part of a team organising a major international conference of thousands. It was time for a break. As soon as the conference was over, Alison and I and our four children were heading out on vacation.

Our holidays were always great fun but, importantly, not great expense. We towed a caravan, pitched it on a camping site, stayed there as long as we wanted and then moved somewhere else. It suited us and our bank balance.

This time we were ambitious. Post-conference, we’d drive with caravan to south-west Scotland, get the ferry to Northern Ireland, tour there and later go south into the Republic of Ireland. It was 1988, and the ‘Troubles’ were still raging in the north, but we’d no reason to think anyone would target us with bombs or bullets.

But there might be one reason: our car registration plates. Along with numbers, the plates on the front and back of our car and on the caravan included the letters UDA. In mainland Britain, that indicated only that our car’s origins were in Birmingham. But UDA carried an altogether other meaning in Northern Ireland. It stood for Ulster Defence Association, a prominent paramilitary group dedicated to defending Protestant loyalist areas and opposing the Provisional Irish Republican Army (the IRA). The UDA and IRA were both considered to be at the forefront of armed conflict. And our car had UDA front and back. Going to Northern Ireland in 1988 with that registration was unthinkable.

While I was off trying to save the world, Alison got on the phone to our local vehicle registration office, explained the issue, and asked if we could get a new number plate for our car. The short answer was ‘no’, not unless we were willing to buy an expensive special number. We couldn’t afford that, and it made no economic sense for just one holiday trip.

But Alison doesn’t give up easily. She phoned the police in Belfast, and was put through to an Inspector. He listened – laughed – and said some crazy person in Northern Ireland would likely pay for that registration. But, more seriously, he said of course there were some risks. Probably no-one would shoot us (good news) but they might torch our caravan because of its number plate (bad news). But what could we do? The Inspector said anyone in N.I. could get a new number for their vehicle if, for example, they believed their existing number was on a ‘hit list’. There was no charge for the change. So, he advised Alison to report this back to our local vehicle registration office, ask for a new number, and if officials were still unwilling get them to phone him in Belfast.

Our local office still wouldn’t budge, but they did phone the Inspector, and after that call they weren’t happy but they did budge. They told Alison they’d agree to a no-cost change, with the condition that we couldn’t choose the lettering on our plate. That was fine with us, and instead of UDA our car soon proudly bore the letters XSA. Whatever XSA might stand for, it would not be a paramilitary organization.

Our vacation trip went ahead. We used campsites near Belfast and Coleraine to admire the cities and beauty spots of the north. Then we headed south, spent time in Dublin, then over to Galway, and back up the west coast. Many people we met in Northern Ireland couldn’t believe we were going to the Republic, and many in the Republic couldn’t believe we’d been in the north. But while we could see many signs of the ‘Troubles’ we were met only with kindness and felt very safe.

What lessons are there from our ‘troubles’ in getting to Ireland?

One lesson is the need to prepare. What if we’d been ignorant of what the letters UDA meant? And how that might be interpreted in Northern Ireland? Very possibly we’d have put our family and our property at risk. Happily, well before the holiday, we realised and tackled the problem. We got prepared.

I was anything but prepared when, on the spur of the moment, I decided to climb Lochnagar, a 1155 metres (3789 ft) mountain within driving distance of our home in Aberdeen. Idiotically I told no-one where I was going. But it was a bright day. I’d be up and down in no time. I wasn’t. I should never have climbed all the way to the summit because the upper third of the mountain was shrouded in mist. I reached the top but didn’t hang around because I was wet and cold, and could see nothing from there through the mist. Visibility was about three metres, sometimes less. I had a map, and knew that on my descent there’d be steep cliffs to my left which plunged down to a small loch – certain death if I fell. To my right were miles of wilderness where I would die of exposure. I had to hold a straight line. But to keep a straight line you need more than a map; you need a compass, and I didn’t have one. After ten minutes I’d no idea where I was going. I climbed back to the summit and started my descent again. After another ten minutes I was once more hopelessly lost. Back to the summit I went. If I’d told anyone that morning where I was going, I could wait to be rescued. But no-one was coming. No-one knew I was there. If I’d had emergency clothing, emergency food, and emergency blanket I might have tried to survive the night. But I’d none of that. I set off a third time, and fell over a large rock, bruising my leg. If I’d fractured my leg, I’d have died. I hobbled on, peering into the mist but seeing only two or three paces ahead. Was I going toward the cliffs or the wilderness? I didn’t know, because I wasn’t prepared. (The obvious ending of this story is that I survived, but did so for reasons that amaze me to this day. What happened will be told another time…)

Lack of preparation leads to problems, to danger, and perhaps to disaster. I should have remembered my Scout motto ‘Be Prepared’. We should all remember that.

The other lesson is the need to persevere. There’s an oft-cited outline of one man’s life that illustrates perseverance very well.

1809    Born in a log cabin on a farm

1816    Family forced out of home, had to work to support them

1818    Mother died

1831    His business failed

1832    Ran for state office – lost

1832    Lost his job – couldn’t get admission to law school

1833    Borrowed money to start another business, went bankrupt

1834    Ran for state office – won

1835    Fiancée died

1836    Nervous breakdown, in bed for six months

1838    Sought to become speaker in state legislature – lost

1840    Sought to become elector – lost

1843    Stood for Congress – lost

1846    Stood for Congress – won

1848    Stood for re-election to Congress – lost

1854    Stood for election to US Senate – lost

1856    Sought Vice-Presidential nomination by his party – lost badly

1858    Stood again for election to US Senate – lost

1860    Elected as President of the United States

His name was Abraham Lincoln, probably the most revered President in the nation’s history.

The story above of Lincoln’s path to the White House comes from several sources, which don’t all have exactly the same details. But, that aside, the point is clear. Here is a man whose beginnings were humble, who failed in business ventures, who faced tragedies which took a deep toll on his health, and whose ambitions for public office were thwarted many times. But also here is a man who didn’t give up. He persevered and became President during the most critical of times, the Civil War. What if Abraham Lincoln had walked away during his early years, abandoned his hopes and dreams, and retreated back to a quiet life in rural Illinois? There’s no happy answer to that question.

Sometimes it seems great things are done only by people who have advantages of family background, education, intellect, good looks, popularity, brilliant leadership skills, and so on. But that’s not how it is. Often it’s the person who tries, tries and tries again who achieves most.

My friend is an excellent amateur golfer who, when younger, played for his county. One of his opponents was Luke Donald (who later became a top-level professional golfer). My friend told me, ‘Luke was a great golfer in his youth, but not especially better than most of us. He just worked harder than any of us at his game.’ Donald did work hard, and in 2011 became World Number One in golf and the first ever to win the Money List titles (most money won) in Europe and the US in the same year. He persevered and it (literally) paid off.

Achievement isn’t about luck or even brilliance. Often it’s a trek down a path of hardship and disappointment, just putting one foot in front of the other until the destination is reached.

This blog post could have been titled ‘Get ready and then keep trekking’. That’s certainly its message. But you might also need to know a senior police officer in Belfast if your car number plate has a paramilitary group’s initials.