Rick has died

My friend, Rick Allen, has died. A few days ago he was caught in an avalanche on K2, the world’s second highest peak and hardest to climb, and swept to his death.

Rick was 68 years old. He’d climbed for over 40 years, and was recognised as one of the world’s top mountaineers. K2, located on the border of China and Pakistan, is 8,611 metres (28,251 ft) high, only 238 metres less than Mount Everest but considered far more deadly. One climber dies on K2 for every four who reach the summit. Rick was attempting a new route up the south east face, raising money for Partners UK, a humanitarian charity which provides emergency relief during crisis events.

Now Rick has died, and been buried near the foot of K2. Being laid to rest among the world’s highest mountains is exactly what Rick would want.

He was my friend during my ten years as a minister in Aberdeen. During that time Rick came to faith in Christ, was baptised, became one of our church members, and married his wife Alison (who later worked with me in the church office). After their wedding service, Rick and Alison exited beneath an arch of ice axes held aloft by climbing buddies. (Alison, sadly, died some years later.)

Rick was my best encourager when I ventured into the Scottish mountains. I told him a nervous church member had said I was certain to die if I continued to climb alone. But Rick told me ‘Of course there are dangers, but there’s no reason you can’t climb on your own if you master a compass and map, have the right equipment, and use common sense.’ I accepted his wisdom. It would have been hard to argue since he was a renowned Himalayan mountaineer, and I was an utter novice.

Rick urged me to buy an ice axe, essential for digging into snow to haul yourself up and, even more importantly, he taught me how to lean my weight on the axe to brake a slide downhill. I kept that axe for years, even after we’d moved to the Thames Valley in the south of England where there’s almost no snow and definitely no mountains.

Rick taught me much more than how to use an ice axe. I’ve been reflecting on some of these things since I heard of his death.

A good life is active, not passive    Rick wasn’t for letting life happen to him. Nor that life should be super-protected, like an ocean-going yacht moored permanently in a harbour. What he had – intellectually, socially, physically – was a gift to be used. There were great things to accomplish, and it would be a sin not to grasp every opportunity. You don’t retreat from challenges; you face them head on.

Around that time I was planning a visit to church workers in Pakistan. I’d never been to Asia, and was particularly nervous about Pakistan. But I was helped by advice from another friend. George had spent many years in a developing country, and he told me two particularly valuable things:

  1. Banish any idea that ‘this ought to happen’ (such as assuming a train should run at its scheduled time).
  2. ‘Just go for it’. Take advantage of every experience, enjoy it, and find what’s good in it.

Both those lessons have served me well in Asia and down the years. But it’s the second I want to highlight because ‘go for it’ was precisely Rick’s attitude. Rick didn’t let life happen; he made it happen. He got the best from everything and gave his best to everything.

You can’t be afraid of big challenges    From ancient to modern times, people have attempted the seemingly impossible. They sailed great oceans not knowing when or where they’d land. They explored huge jungles well aware they might die from disease or hostility. They were launched into space trusting to less technology than we have today in one mobile phone. They didn’t have to do these things. And yet they did. There’s something hard-wired into our psyches to reach beyond what’s already known or done, to push further and further out the boundaries of human accomplishments.

There’s a semi-serious answer mountaineers give when asked, ‘Why did you climb that mountain?’ Answer: ‘Because it’s there’. That’s true. But it’s not the whole truth. The fuller answer is: ‘Because it’s there, and climbing it proves that mountain is not greater than what I can achieve.’

For most of us our ‘big challenges’ aren’t Everest or K2. But our challenges are still big for us:

  1. Can I really do this job?
  2. Will this relationship work?
  3. Should I step out in faith?
  4. Can I take on this responsibility?

We should ask whether a big challenge is the right challenge for us. But, Rick would say, no challenge should be refused just because it’s ‘big’. We’re made to take on big challenges.

But you must put in the work    I was driving in Aberdeen late one evening, and noticed a runner jogging up the hill carrying weights in both hands. It was Rick. I couldn’t have run up that hill minus weights and with a wind behind me, but Rick was pushing his body to its limits. When we talked about it later, he added an important point, that on a mountain, roped with others, perhaps in near-blizzard conditions, your life and  their lives depend on everyone being supremely fit. Hence he was putting in the work before his next big climb.

Years ago I listened to an interview with the politician and novelist Jeffrey Archer. He was answering a listener’s question about how to become famous. His answer was that you have to be famous for something. So, he asked, what are you good at? Cooking? If so, train to be the best cook in the country and be famous for that. If you’re good at athletics, train to win major championships and be famous for that. Or you might be a superb singer, or hilarious comedian – put in the work, become the best, and then you’ll be famous. It’s nonsense to think you can just be famous. You have to be famous for something, and that requires years of hard work.

I’ve never forgotten that. Nor Rick’s example. And tried to live it out. Before I became General Director of BMS World Mission, I’d read books on management and been responsible for a moderately large church. But BMS was a multi-million pound organisation working in 40 countries with hundreds of staff and volunteers. Heading up BMS was way beyond anything I’d done before. So, despite what seemed an impossible workload, I studied for a Masters degree in Business Administration (MBA). I read teaching materials and books on strategy, human resources, organisational structure, finance and more. When? Anytime I could, which included on planes, into the early hours of the morning during conferences, and while sitting on a thin mattress under a mosquito net in Angola. I put in the work, scored well in assignments and exams, and got my degree. Those studies helped greatly as I led BMS through change.

The biggest challenges are worthy of our best, and our best requires hard work.

Come to terms with the risks you are taking    Rick knew the risk of avalanches. He’d been caught in them before but survived, albeit with scars. Avalanches often occur after soft snow, but what comes thundering down a mountainside is everything that snow picks up on its descent such as rock, ice, and soil. It’s heavy and moves very fast. National Geographic explains: ‘A large, fully developed avalanche can weigh as much as a million tons. It can travel faster than 320 kilometers per hour (200 miles per hour).’*

Risk, though, doesn’t exist only in mountains. It’s part of everyday life. We accept risk when we cross the road, drive a car, take a flight, eat a meal. It’s risky to get out of bed. And it’s risky to stay in bed since many die in their sleep. In other words, you can’t live and avoid risk. We know that, and we accept a certain level of risk when we cross a bridge (it might collapse), walk down the street (a car might crash into us), mix with others (someone might attack us), and so on.

Rick wasn’t ignorant of mountaineering’s risks. Among his earlier near death accidents was one where he’d been given up for dead but then found still alive. (More details in news report links at the end of this blog.)

But at least two things pushed Rick on. One, Rick had faith, knew his Maker, and was ready to stand before him. That didn’t mean he wanted to die; just that he was ready to die whenever the time came. Two, Rick couldn’t have lived a life geared to self-protection. He had a great career in the oil industry, but would never have settled for that as his only purpose. He had higher goals (literally). He was a great climber, one of the best in the world. That demanded hard training but it was also a gift, a passion, almost a calling which drove him to supreme achievements. In 2012, Rick and his friend Sandy Allan were the first to conquer the Mozeno Ridge in Pakistan, for which they received the prestigious Golden Ice Axe award. Was that easy? Was that safe? It was neither. But these men had an inner drive that faced immense risk and pressed on nevertheless.

Very few will ever be elite mountaineers. But, for all of us, any significant challenge we face comes with risk. To refuse the risk is to refuse the challenge. But the rewards for facing the challenge are great.

Rick bought me a book    I read a lot of books. Non-fiction for information and mind-stretching ideas. Fiction for page-turning excitement, especially in novels where there seems no possibility of a good ending.

Never, though, have I found the drama, suspense and excitement of fiction in a non-fiction book. Until, that is, Rick gave me Touching the Void by Joe Simpson. +

From the earliest pages of Touching the Void you know how it must end, but as I read  the book I was unable to believe it could end that way. It’s a survival story from a high altitude climb in the Peruvian Andes that went horribly wrong. The book was published in 1988, and is still in print. I could not recommend the book too highly. (Over a million copies have been sold, and more than 20 translations made. The book has won awards, been turned into a 2003 film, and recently into a stage play.)

I loaned out my copy of Touching the Void and the inevitable happened: it wasn’t returned. So I bought it again. It’s that good, and that important. Never have I been so inspired by an account of human determination to survive. I’ll always be grateful to Rick for buying me that book. I’ve just taken it off my bookshelf. It’s time to read it again, and Rick will keep speaking to me through its pages.

If I could talk to Rick one final time, here’s what I’d say: ‘Rick, you inspired me and helped me. And you’ve done that for thousands more. Thank you. Now you’ve made the ultimate final ascent. May God bless you.’


The following news stories describe Rick’s accident, and give more information on his life, especially his climbing.



There are stories from the north of Scotland newspaper Press and Journal I’d encourage you to read, but any link I create embeds copyright protected photos! The way to find all the paper’s stories about Rick is by entering ‘press and journal Rick Allen’ in Google, and the stories will be listed.

* https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/avalanche/  During World War I Austrian and Italian troops fought in the Alps. In 1916 10,000 troops died in avalanches in a single day. In fact, avalanches killed more soldiers in World War I than poison gas did.

+ The book exists in several editions, the most recent published by Penguin: https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/1035723/touching-the-void/9781784875374.html

It’s available from most bookshops.


I left school and home when I was 16 because I’d been recruited by The Scotsman as a trainee journalist. I had only two weeks to get ready. Then my Mum and Dad drove me to Edinburgh where I had arranged a place to stay. First thing on Monday morning I went to the newspaper office, and so my career journey began.

Not once was I anxious about leaving home and starting work. Not once did I think I might not be ready for all this. Why not? Because my parents had done a good job. They’d loved me, provided for me, protected me, patched me up, forgiven me, encouraged me, believed in me, and much more. I had as solid and secure an upbringing as any child could want. So, excited and confident, off I went to change the world…

I’ve often thought and talked about parenthood down the years. Sometimes that’s been with parents anxious because a child has fallen into bad company, or developed dangerous habits, or lacked any idea about what they’ll do with their life, or is no longer talking to mum and dad. But most conversations about parenting have happened while counselling young adults, or people in mid-life, who are trying to resolve issues that should never have existed in their lives. Their issues related to things their parents did or said.

Before I write more about parenthood, I need to say three things.

First, I recognise not everyone wants or can have children. If you’ve longed for children, but it’s been impossible, my heart goes out to you. And please don’t read any further if this subject makes you unhappy.

Second, some children will become great intellectuals, engineers, doctors, lawyers. But not every child. For all sorts of reasons some don’t have the same advantages as others. I value them just as much. They may not design the next generation of space rockets, but they’re amazing people with exactly the same worth as anyone on this planet.

Third, there are many models of family life today, not just Dad, Mum and children. When I refer to dads and mums I mean those who occupy those kinds of parenting roles. This blog is about parenting, and is not the place for comment on the variety of modern family units. Please forgive me if my language is clumsy.

So I’ll now share principles of parenthood I’ve learned. My list isn’t exhaustive.

I’ll start with one big statement:

The goal of parenthood is to move your children from complete dependence as infants to full independence as adults.

The first part of that statement – dependence – is self-evident. Alison and I left the maternity hospital with our baby son, got back to our tiny flat, and realised this little boy was completely dependent on us for everything. It was an awesome thought.

The last part of my statement – about children reaching full independence as adults – needs a couple of explanations.

One, I don’t mean ‘independence’ in the sense of losing touch or losing affection. We have four children, and we’re all great friends who don’t hesitate to say ‘I love you’ and spend time together.

Two, by ‘adults’ I mean ‘mature adults’, people who can manage their lives and relationships, and make good decisions about what they believe and how they should live.

The most important aspect of my ‘goal of parenthood’ statement is that it describes a transition from helpless infant to competent grown up. I’ve heard people with young children say, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they just stayed the age they are now?’ The answer is ‘No! That would be dreadful. They’re not meant to stay four or eight or ten. They’re meant to grow up.’

But that idea wasn’t shared by one neighbour. With great delight, she told me how her three sons’ marriages had all ended in divorce ‘and now I’ve got all my boys back with me’. Clearly she’d never wanted to let them go, and I came away from the conversation wondering how much – consciously or unconsciously – she’d undermined their marriages.

Parenthood is about moving helpless infants to mature adulthood.

Towards that goal, here are principles of parenthood that I believe matter.

The foundation that supports everything is love. When parents love their children – enthusiastically, joyfully, thoughtfully, unconditionally – children feel supported, protected, valued and free to express their creativity and individuality. Their self-esteem is strong, and thus able to deal with disappointments and failures. They don’t question their worth, because worth was built into them from their earliest years.

When it was cuddle-down-and-go-to-sleep time for our children, I’d sometimes crouch beside them and whisper, ‘I’m proud of you. Not just what you do but the wonderful person you are’. Usually there would be a gentle smile, and they went off to sleep feeling good and feeling important.

Realise that who you are has a great influence on who your children become. Ask a school teacher if they affect children’s lives more than educationally, they’ll agree they impact their behaviour, their goals, their beliefs. ‘But,’ the teacher will add, ‘nothing like as much as their parents do’. That’s true. Those in parenting roles model attitudes, behaviour, beliefs, love, hope, values and much more. A child sees or senses what you think, what you value, what you aim for. You may not intend it, but you can’t stop it.

I was around 55 when I first realised how like my father I was. I was 5 foot 8 inches (173cm) in height; so was he. I wore size 8 shoes; so did he. I had begun to ‘thin on top’ in my forties; so did he. And it wasn’t just physical characteristics. My Dad played golf; so do I. My Dad was proud to be Scottish; so am I. My Dad hated making tax returns; so do I. My Dad was stubborn; so… !

Like father, like son. Dad died 23 years ago, but much of him has lived on through my brother and me.

Children are unique, not clones. But, in many ways they will grow up to be like their parents, and that’s a sobering responsibility for those raising them.

What parents say can never be unsaid. Lydia was in tears while we spoke. She’d never felt accepted by her parents, especially her father, and tried and tried to win his approval. But nothing she did ever met his standards, and sometimes his rage erupted. ‘When I was eight…’ she began, hesitated, but finally got the words out. ‘When I was eight, my father said, “I hate you and wish you’d never been born”’. I was stunned. How could any parent say that? But Lydia’s father had, and the wound never healed.

Since then I’ve found Lydia’s experience wasn’t unique. Others have told me their parents spoke near identical words to them. With some ‘I hate you’ was shouted in a moment of extreme rage. Others were told it over and over, often in a chillingly quiet voice. Those were evil words, weapons of abuse that hurt their children for the rest of their lives.

Vicky’s situation was different but equally bad. Her university friends were worried about Vicky’s mental state as she waited for her end of first year exam results. I met with Vicky, and spoke encouragingly, but it was obvious I wasn’t getting through. Suddenly she started crying and said, ‘My father has told me I can’t ever come home unless I’ve passed everything. He doesn’t want me back if I’ve failed any of my exams.’ Those words from Vicky’s father – whether he meant them literally or not – were destroying her.

The good or bad things parents say have life-long effects on children.

Your dream job isn’t your child’s dream job. Neither of my parents pushed me towards any particular career. The nearest my father came was airing his idea that banking was a safe long-term career. He didn’t press it. I’m glad he didn’t because banking would have been a terrible choice for me: a) I’m really bad with numbers; b) about 20 years later, the banking industry slimmed their operations and shed huge numbers of staff. My parents would never have thought of journalism. Nor would they have imagined I’d go to university. Nor become a minister, nor director of an international mission agency, nor president of an American graduate school. I forged my own path.

But some parents do shape their children’s choices. One medical school issues this warning for potential applicants: ‘Some medical students are expected to follow in their parents’ footsteps, or at least their expectations… Before you spend a lot of money, time, and effort on medical school, do some soul-searching to make sure it is you who wants this.’*

That’s a good warning. I suspect some parents nudge their children towards the career they wished they’d followed. That’s not wise, and not fair if their children find themselves in the wrong career.

Apologise when you’ve said or done the wrong thing. I confess there were times when I lost my temper and shouted at my children. I frightened them, and as soon as I calmed down I apologised. Of course I should never have been so angry – I wish it had never happened. But the apology at least told my child I knew I was wrong. More than once my apology was met with, ‘It’s okay Dad…’ Which is very humbling.

I don’t believe I’ve ever pretended to my children that I was right about facts after realising I was wrong. But some people have a hard time admitting errors, especially to their children. Perhaps they want to maintain an image of infallibility. But the truth is this: children don’t lose respect when someone admits they were wrong; they do lose respect when someone won’t admit they were wrong.

Don’t be naïve about your children. Several things can be bundled under this heading.

First, of course your son/daughter keeps secrets from you. I listened as Jean assured me her 14-year-old Janey told her everything.

So I asked, ‘Jean, when you were 14, did your parents know everything you did and everyone you met?’

‘Certainly not!’ she replied, smiling grimly at what her parents would have thought.

‘Is it not likely, then, that Janey tells you as much as you told your mum?’

Silence. Point made; point taken.

Second, your child isn’t always a paragon of virtue. When the Scout Leader says Archie was smoking behind the building, he has no motive for making that up. The argument ‘Archie would never do that’ won’t impress him.

Third, most children aren’t academically smart in all subjects. It’s inevitable they’ll do less well in some. American teachers told me stories of parents insisting their child shouldn’t have been given a ‘B’ because Tanya is a ‘straight As’ student. But, at that time in that subject, Tanya was a ‘B’ student. To argue otherwise was to do Tanya no favours because she may simply not be clever in that subject, and pretending she’s better than she is denies her the help she needs to improve.

Children must be allowed to be children. They’re not 3-year-old or 5-year-old adults. What we expect from them should be age appropriate. That’s why the old saying ‘children should be seen and not heard’ is cruel. So is assuming they won’t scatter their toys everywhere. Or that they’ll always be back from playing with their friends exactly when told. And so on. They’re children, just children.

Children must be given the chance to grow up. Henry was telling me about his three-year-old daughter, and said he couldn’t imagine letting her go anywhere on her own.

‘You mean, not until she’s older?’ I asked.

‘No, I can’t imagine ever letting her go someplace by herself.’

I didn’t argue with him. But I was surprised and concerned. As I said in my ‘goal of parenthood’ statement, every child must move stage by stage from being helpless to being competent. That can happen only if they’re gradually given more responsibility. Each parent’s job is to judge the pace of that transition, and it’s tricky. Often there’ll be anxiety. But for every risk of moving them forward too fast, there are alternative risks by holding them back.

Remember you matter as more than a parent. Life with children can be all-consuming. Perhaps our job takes us away for hours every day, but everything else is about being mum or dad. Sometimes –after children have left home – parents still address each other as ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’. But we’re more than that. Hopefully we’re still in love, and enjoy being together. And we have intellectual lives, social lives, sporting lives, community lives. Or, at least we should. We’re not failing our children if we find time for these things; we may be failing ourselves if we don’t.

It’s a wonderful thing to have children. We focus on the challenges of bringing up kids, and people love to tell us scare stories about how hard the next stage will be. But – despite the exhaustion, exasperation, uncertainties, self-doubt – children are a great privilege and joy. My heart goes out to those who’ve found it impossible to have children, and to those for whom the burden has been too great. But let’s not lose sight of the thrill of seeing young lives grow and become good people who will make this world a better place through what they do, who they influence, and, hopefully, by being your best friends always.


Yesterday is yesterday

When I started school, among many things I didn’t understand was why my desk had a hole. It was a perfectly round hole, nearly three inches across, in the top right corner.

I didn’t know what that hole was for until, three years later, the teacher came to each of our 42 desks and placed a black cup into the hole. She filled each cup with ink, and laid a pen and paper on our desks. The pen wasn’t a ball-point or fountain pen, just a shaped wooden shaft with a stylus on the end. She told us to dip the stylus in the ink, and then write on the paper. The ink quickly ran out so after each short sentence we had to dip our pens in the ink again. Writing was slow, and very, very messy.

We practised with ink and stylus for a year, and then our suffering ended. Why? Because someone realised this was a complete waste of time because ball-point pens and fountain pens were common by then. There must have been virtually no-one who dipped a stylus-only pen in and out of a reservoir of ink. Those days were gone.

Two other glaring instances of ‘persevering when the day is past’ stand out.

Typewriters    Part of my training for journalism was typing. I practised the drills and learned to touch type. Every finger except the left thumb was used, and soon I had no need to look at the keyboard. It’s a skill I still use today.

But that skill tempted me into my last, longest and least pleasurable experience with a typewriter. I made the brave but foolish decision to type my own doctoral thesis. As well as being 436 pages long, each of which had to be letter perfect, there were two special difficulties: a) much of the argument involved New Testament Greek, so I had to type each page leaving spaces to handwrite Greek into the gaps; b) I decided to create footnotes which, with a typewriter, requires calculating in advance the number of lines needed for that page’s footnotes so you could stop the main text with exactly enough space for the footnotes. My worst ever page to type had only two lines of main text and over 40 lines of a footnote. I lost count how many times I retyped that page. Almost every page was typed at least three times, but some pages many more than that.

Every page was typed on a small, portable electric typewriter. It was important that the margins didn’t change so I glued their settings in place. That typewriter lasted just long enough for me to finish. What a relief!

And then – then! – I bought my first computer (an Apple IIe). If only earlier. If I’d had a word processor before typing the thesis it would have calculated automatically the space needed for each page’s footnotes and every error would have been corrected before printing out. But I had stuck with my faithful old typewriter and made my life very difficult.

Typewriter manufacturers fought the good fight to keep their products selling after computer word processors became affordable. They gave them small memories so the typist had a chance to correct a mis-typing before the keys struck the paper. And they developed ‘golf ball’ typewriters which had no keys, just a super-fast spinning ball which struck the paper with exactly the same force every time ridding the script of light and dark letters. But no innovation could save the typewriter. The more that manufacturers churned out typewriters the more money they lost. The days of the typewriter were over.

Digital photography    As I understand it a Kodak engineer invented a digital camera in 1975. But Kodak made its money selling film, so did nothing with the idea. Other firms developed digital photography, while Kodak still tried to sell film. The giant of a former era of photography filed for bankruptcy in 2012. Film cameras still exist but only for a niche market. Film’s days are gone.

Those two examples could be multiplied. Most of us are slow to recognise when big change is happening around us, and even when we do we’re slow to let go of what’s familiar.

I’ll set down four categories where we’re ‘guilty’ of that. Some concern what’s happening in the world around us but all of them also touch on our internal reactions to change.

1. When we see change but don’t realise its significance

That would be true for Kodak and typewriter manufacturers. Some have said Kodak’s leadership thought they were in the photographic film business whereas they were really in the imaging business. That mistake imprisoned them in doing what they’d always done. Something the same happened with typewriters. Their manufacturers thought all the public wanted was better typewriters, not recognising that the disruptive technology of word processors would make their products permanently obsolete.

We think their mistakes were glaring failures to recognise new needs and opportunities. But at the time it wouldn’t have seemed like that to the CEO of Kodak or a typewriter manufacturer, someone immersed for years in one line of business and thinking all they needed to do was improve the product and raise the marketing budget. And, with no expertise in digital cameras or word processors, it’s not so surprising they shied away from what they didn’t understand or think important.

Many shun what they don’t understand or doubt. It happens with viruses and vaccines. With being told to abandon our petrol or diesel cars. With giving up the office for working from home. With radical changes to diet to counter obesity, diabetes and heart disease. What disturbs us frightens us, and we may react by denying the need to change.

2. When we don’t recognise a goal is unachievable

It happens in sport, in entertainment, in politics, with those chasing career promotion or, sadly, with those pursuing a significant personal relationship.

For every top golfer who is winning millions on a professional tour, there are tens of thousands slogging away in near poverty but still hoping that one day they’ll break through. And thousands of musicians borrowing small fortunes to produce professional standard videos believing that’ll give them a break in the pop world. And politicians aiming to run the country, but never getting further than the lowest level of local council work. Also millions working all hours at great cost to family life and personal health to climb the corporate ladder but never getting there. And the many women and some men I’ve counselled who want companionship and probably marriage, to love and be loved, but year after year it doesn’t happen.

My pain for that last group is as nothing compared to the pain they feel. And I’d never counsel anyone to close down their feelings. But, for those in other categories, there is a case for a reality check and accepting the goal that drove them on will never be achieved.

Arthur reached very high levels in one of the major oil-related companies. The work had been super-demanding, but very financially rewarding. Soon after he passed his 50th birthday, Arthur told me that if you hadn’t reached the top by age 50 in his line of business you’d never get there. He knew now his career goal was out of reach. Soon after he was offered a ‘package’ to leave. Once that’s offered, staying isn’t really an option. He accepted the deal, retired, and filled his life with voluntary work that fulfilled him, and at last he was able to give time to his wife and family.

3. When we don’t see or accept that something is over

Two blogs ago (‘Values and friendship’) I described a day out in my early 20s with then girlfriend Kate. On long drives I realised I was having to think up subjects for us to talk about. That was stressful. I wrote: ‘Warning bells rang, and the relationship with Kate gradually came to an end’. That was true. But that gradual ending actually took six months. Those extra months were not good for either of us. We should have recognised reality and ended the relationship earlier.

Many small and large things in our lives won’t work out. The only shame in that is when we won’t let them go.

Here is a little ancient wisdom from the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible:

There is a time for everything,
    a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
    a time to search and a time to give up

These are selected verses from a longer list in Ecclesiastes chapter 3. Their message is that we need wisdom to know when to start, and wisdom to know when to stop.

4. When we can’t let go of our past

This is different from the earlier subjects, because it focuses on our internal feelings.

With people I’ve counselled, two things are often said:

  • I can never be different
  • I can never forgive myself

The first of these – the thought they could never change – imprisoned some. Usually they believed they could never escape their background. Perhaps been abused physically and/or sexually as children. Perhaps developed damaging and dangerous habits related to smoking, drinking, drugs. Perhaps grew up in an economically challenged area, with no opportunity or expectation other than drudgery, hard work and an early grave. Or perhaps been raised in such a privileged environment that later on they couldn’t relate to anyone from any other background.

The challenge for these folk was believing – really believing – it was possible to be different. That the old was yesterday and the new is today and those ‘days’ won’t be the same.

Not for a moment did I ever suggest that was easy. And very few changed overnight, so my ‘yesterday’ and ‘today’ statement shouldn’t be taken literally. But a new beginning really is possible. I’ve seen it happen with people from their teens through middle age to old age. The grip of what controls us can be broken.

The second statement – that they can’t forgive themselves – is a curious one. Why curious? Because often the full version is: ‘I know God can forgive me, but I can never forgive myself’. The cheating spouse can’t let go of their guilt for such an enormous betrayal. Or the exam cheat is dogged by knowing they didn’t deserve their degree, their job, their salary. God says they’re forgiven, but they can’t accept it.

I’ve never been a priest (just as well since I have a wife and four children) but have acted in a priestly way for some tortured by their past failings. They’ve told me exactly what they did (confession) and how they don’t live like that now (repentance). I’ve been able to assure them of God’s forgiveness and tell them his will now is that they release their guilt burden and live with no sense of condemnation (restoration/renewal). God has cast their sins into the deepest sea and erected a sign saying ‘No fishing’. Truly ‘the old has gone, the new is here!’ (2 Corinthians 5:17) Not all have found peace, but, with help, many have.

For every person who ever breathed, there have been days which were good and days which were bad. But those days are gone now. I sometimes tell myself that past things have drifted down river and round a bend, and they’ll never flow upstream back to me. Today is a new day. A good day. And there are better things to do than grieve over my old typewriter, film camera, unfulfilled goals, or past sins. Yesterday is yesterday.

Why quit while you’re ahead?

Two golfers have something strange in common. One was male and played more than 90 years ago, the other female who played more recently. Both were highly skilled, and greatly admired. In their twenties they were hard to beat, and had great golfing futures. But the strange thing they have in common happened when they were 28. They both quit.

Bobby Jones, an American, was always an amateur and played while also working as a lawyer. He won his first tournament at age 6, and shot to golfing stardom by winning the US Open in 1923 aged 21. By 1929 he’d won the US Open three times, the Open Championship (the UK’s top tournament) twice, and the US Amateur four times.

Then came 1930 when Jones did what no-one had before or since, he won the Grand Slam of Open and Amateur titles all in the same calendar year: the Amateur Championship (UK), the Open Championship, the US Open, and the US Amateur.

And then he stopped. He stayed involved with golf, such as designing Augusta National Golf Club and launching the Masters Tournament which is played there annually. But he retired from competitive golf aged 28 and practised law.

Lorena Ochoa, a Mexican, also quit at her best. She was ranked number one lady golfer in the world for 158 consecutive weeks (no-one since has got past 109 weeks), winning 30 titles in eight seasons, including two Majors. In each year from 2006 to 2009 she was the Ladies Professional Golfer Association player of the year. Then – aged 28 – she stopped. In an interview just after, she said she wanted to give time back to her family, and added: ‘I am very satisfied with my achievements’.

These are two examples, but ‘going out at the top’ isn’t unique to sport. I’m intrigued why people call a halt when things are going so well. Do they feel they’ve done all they can, and don’t want to see their abilities decline? Has the stress of getting to the top been too much and now they want out? Do they fear they’ll never produce such good work again? Or do they simply have other ambitions to fulfil?

Quitting while ahead isn’t done only by superstars.  Our achievements may be less spectacular, but they’re still achievements and family and friends would expect us to go further.

Why don’t we? Why stop doing what you’re good at doing?

I’ll describe four reasons.

Fear of not being able to repeat    Authors – including the most successful – are often afflicted with this thought. The last book was a blockbuster, and now they stare at a blank computer screen thinking, ‘I can never match that. I can never do that again’. Some get past their writers’ block and produce more good work. Some can’t even make themselves try.

The odd thing is that the more people praise us for doing well, the more we’re afraid we’ll disappoint them in the future. Perhaps an achievement was a one-hit wonder. We can’t sustain that standard and don’t want to fail, so we don’t try again.

Public acclaim comes with unreasonable expectations    I happen to be writing this blog the day before England play Italy in the final of the UEFA European Championship. Unquestionably the England football team has done well to get this far, and if they win the players will be legends in their lifetime. Children will be named after them. Huge financial rewards will flow their way. And, in England, the media and public opinion will declare the team near certainties to win the 2022 World Cup to be played in Qatar.

That’s enormous pressure. No matter how well paid, no matter how skilled, no matter what’s been won before, it’s hard to cope with that level of expectations.

Some thrive on pressure. It’s been true of top tennis players like Navratilova and Federer. But others have stopped while ahead. Björn Borg won 11 Grand Slam singles titles in seven years (including five consecutively at Wimbledon), and everyone expected more from him, but he quit aged 26, telling family and friends that tennis was no longer fun. Constantly trying to live out massive expectations would rob anyone of joy.

Failure to understand why we’re succeeding    Some personality types are happy to go with the flow of whatever happens; others like to feel in control. So when opportunity or achievement occurs, but you don’t know how or why, it’s unsettling.

Stanley Baldwin was Prime Minister in the UK three times in the 1920s and 1930s. Two out of the three occasions he didn’t expect to hold the post. In 1923 Prime Minister Bonar Law retired as soon as he was given a diagnosis of terminal cancer (and died soon after), and Baldwin was appointed PM.

After periods in and out of office, his third term began unexpectedly in 1935. Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald was becoming increasingly senile, and Baldwin deputised for him. Then MacDonald’s health declined more severely, and Baldwin was formally made PM.

That third term was tumultuous, with furious debates about disarmament / rearmament in the run up to World War II, and then almost equally ferocious arguments about the intention of King Edward VIII to marry the twice divorced Wallis Simpson. Baldwin opposed the marriage, and ultimately the King abdicated.

Two times Baldwin was thrust into the top job unexpectedly. The strain on him during those years must have been immense.

I can’t come close to rivalling Baldwin’s situation as Prime Minister of the UK. But two of the major roles of my professional life were unexpected. I became General Director of the Baptist Missionary Society without ever having been a missionary overseas or served on any of BMS’s committees. BMS (now BMS World Mission) was founded in 1792 by William Carey, the first ever society of the modern missionary movement. BMS has an illustrious history. It is also a major charity, channelling millions of pounds per annum to the least evangelised and impoverished countries of the world. After 12 years in BMS’s most senior staff role, I accepted an invitation to become President of Northern Seminary in Illinois, USA. I had the right academic qualifications for the role, but – as I pointed out to my interviewers – I wasn’t American, hadn’t come through the American education system, and though I’d taught at university level in Edinburgh and Aberdeen didn’t have academic roles in my career background. They still made me President. Both those positions were challenging, especially when people assumed you knew things you couldn’t possibly know. I persevered; some wouldn’t.

Many find themselves in roles they didn’t expect or don’t think they deserve. Even when things are going well, they’re uneasy. The result? A level of discomfort that causes some to step away.

Physical, emotional or spiritual exhaustion    I’ve always loved the biblical account of Elijah. He’s a triumphant hero but that’s not the whole story. In the book of 1 Kings, chapter 18, he challenges hundreds of false prophets to prove their god’s strength against what the Lord can do. The true God will be able to light a sacrifice without human intervention. They meet on Mount Carmel. The prophets of Baal dance around their altar calling on their god, “But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention” (1 Kings 18:29). Then it was Elijah’s turn. He organised his altar and sacrifice, dug a trench around it, and had everything soaked with water three times. Then he prayed, and the fire of God fell and burned up the sacrifice, wood and stones. And the people cried out “The Lord – he is God! The Lord – he is God!” (1 Kings 18:39).

It was complete vindication about who was the true God and who was the true prophet. A great day for Elijah. That’s 1 Kings 18.

But 1 Kings 19 is very different. The Queen was furious her prophets had been killed, and threatened Elijah’s life. Elijah ran. When he stopped he left his servant, and went on another day into the wilderness. He was at breaking point. “He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, Lord,’ he said. ‘Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors’” (1 Kings 19:4).

At first glance, his running away seems strange. If God hadn’t sent fire, Elijah’s life would have ended on Mount Carmel. But God did send fire and Elijah saw what God could do. But that was yesterday, and today he couldn’t cope, ran away and prayed God would take his life.

We might now call that a form of post traumatic stress disorder. Elijah had been through a hugely difficult experience. He’d survived but it had left him exhausted mentally and physically, overwhelmed and unable to cope. He couldn’t go on, and just wanted out.

Now five responses to these four reasons for quitting.

One   It’s okay to stop. Just because you do something well doesn’t oblige you to keep doing it. Besides, there will be other things you’d be good at. C.H. Spurgeon was a brilliant preacher during the Victorian era, packing massive crowds into churches. He founded a college (Spurgeon’s College is still operational today) to prepare more pastors and preachers, and in the early days interviewed all applicants himself. If a prospective student said he knew he was meant for ministry because he’d failed at almost everything else, Spurgeon always refused him. Spurgeon believed anyone who would be a good minister would be good at another six professions as well. He was right. And it’s true for more than ministers. If we can succeed in one thing, we can succeed in others. Moving on to something else isn’t the end of the road, just a junction at which we choose to turn.

 Two    Self-esteem and self-confidence are fragile things in almost everyone. I suspect someone who never self-doubts isn’t super competent but incapable of honest self-analysis. So when we doubt if we can be successful again we’re being normal and natural. And it might be right just to press on. I have a coffee coaster which includes words that have meant much to me down the years: ‘Believe in God; believe also in thyself’. I have believed in God since a child, and the coaster constantly reminds me to believe also in the self God made me. There is such a thing as righteous self-confidence. It’s not pride, and not mere positive thinking. It’s saying ‘I can do this thing and keep doing it. And I can face whatever comes next’.

Three    You might imagine successful people hear nothing but praise. You’d be wrong. I’d preached to about 2000 at a national gathering, and many gathered afterwards to thank me. Then came a lady in tears. During my talk I’d told the story of how my daughter nearly died when caught in a strong tide, and that had triggered memories in her of how her son was murdered by drowning. I couldn’t have known her situation, and my story was appropriate to my message, but I was deeply sorry I’d upset that lady and spent time talking with her. Afterwards I remembered almost none of the kind words said to me that night, but vividly remembered that lady’s pain. She was right to speak to me, and I learned lessons from how deeply she’d been affected. But the criticisms of some others are not legitimate, and I’ve tried not to be too affected by foolish comments. And, whether the negative criticisms are foolish or wise, still to face forward and do what I’ve been called to do.

Four    There can be a streak of perfectionism in high achievers. When our projects are going super-well, we imagine everything is exactly as it should be. But rarely is that true. Most things contain flaws or mistakes. The perfectionist can’t cope with that. If it’s not remedied immediately, the temptation is to get out. But none of us can escape the real world in which things are hardly ever entirely perfect. They’re good, but they’re not 100 per cent as they should be. So, especially when there’s more to be done than can be done, we must accept that good enough is good enough. Life is a balancing act of competing goals and responsibilities, and to give more time to perfect one is to steal time from another. Good enough isn’t perfect, but often it’s perfectly acceptable.

Five    There are two very down-to-earth reasons Elijah ran away when Jezebel threatened his life. 1) It wasn’t just spirituality that had sustained him on Mount Carmel, it was adrenalin. When he came down the mountain the adrenalin drained away, leaving him deflated and vulnerable. 2) He was exhausted, and therefore less able to cope. By the time he’d fled into the wilderness and prayed to die he was beside himself with tiredness and hunger. So, after he’d slept, an angel wakened him and gave him food and drink. He slept again, and a second time he was wakened to eat and drink. Only then was he fit to move forward, learn lessons and accept new challenges. I’ve learned not to look for super-complicated explanations when very ordinary factors are staring us in the face. Elijah didn’t need to die. Rather, after giving out so much, he needed time, rest, and a renewed vision for what was ahead for his life.

Most likely you’re not a golfing, tennis or football superstar. Nor a Prime Minister or a prophet. But you may feel you can’t keep doing what you’re doing even though it’s going well. I meant what I wrote earlier that it’s okay to stop. But often it’s also okay to keep going.  Reaching a ‘Stop’ sign usually means ‘Stop and check’, not ‘Stop and never move forward’.

May God make you wise with your decisions.

Values and friendship

Gail and Simon said they wanted me to conduct their wedding service in two weeks time. I knew them but hadn’t been aware they’d been seeing each other.

‘How long have you been going out together?’ I asked

‘Three weeks,’ Simon said.

I took a deep breath. They’d dated for three weeks, and now wanted to get married in another two. At any time with any people, that would give a pastor pause for thought. But I also knew two other things about Gail and Simon. The first was that neither of them were without a load of troubles in their lives. The second was that Gail was twelve years older than Simon, not a disqualifying factor but I didn’t have strong hopes they’d have thought through issues related to their age difference.

I didn’t refuse to marry them, but did make it clear it couldn’t happen in just another two weeks. They were very unhappy, telling me it was my ‘job’ to marry them. I explained gently my services were not theirs to command, and I must fulfil my role as a pastor in accordance with the trust the congregation had given me and what I believed was right with God.

They left, but not before saying they’d find someone else to marry them in two weeks.

In less than two weeks they’d split up.

Gail’s and Simon’s relationship seemed to have little going for it, and the fact that it ended almost as quickly as it began was no surprise. But I have been surprised with other couples, like Amy and Vic who had a strong and loving relationship others might envy. But not so strong or loving after ten years when it ended.

Relationships never come with guarantees. But there are factors that support and help a relationship to thrive. Love is, of course, foundational. But you can’t live in a foundation. You must build on it. And what’s built, and how it’s built, determines if love will grow and flourish. Real happiness in a relationship is not an accident. It has to be built.

I’ve been identifying factors that help, and in this third (and last) in a short series, I’ll set down two more building blocks that Alison and I believe have been important.

Values When very different people get on well, we say ‘opposites attract’. Yet when two similar people do well, we don’t say ‘similarity attracts’. Personally I don’t give much credence to the ‘opposites’ v ‘similarity’ theory.

What does seem to matter are values – how great a value we place on things that truly matter to us. Relationships can work with differences in these areas, but the greater the differences the greater the potential strain on the relationship.

I’ll give examples, but these are mine and you will have other things which, for you, are deep values.

Faith    When Sharon was fourteen, the faith she’d been taught from childhood came alive for her, and she became a committed Christian. A few years later she went to university, joined a Christian group where she met Joe and, after some time, they became a couple. He proposed, she accepted, two years later they were married, and eventually they had two children. They seemed very happy. But not entirely. One day Sharon told me that two days before their wedding Joe told her he wasn’t actually a Christian. He wasn’t sure faith had ever been real for him; it certainly wasn’t any more. Sharon had always intended to marry someone who shared her faith, but what was she to do with wedding day so imminent? She married Joe, then prayed and hoped he’d find new faith, but he never did. ‘We’re okay,’ Sharon told me, ‘but there’ll always be a gap in our lives that nothing else fills’.

Over the years many have told me of ‘the gap not filled’ because of a faith not shared. Perhaps some couples haven’t felt that tension, but I struggle to understand how faith can be central to every value and purpose of life and for that not to be the same for the person to whom you’ve dedicated your life.

Children    This sub-heading could cover several things, all related to children.

One of the biggest questions is how many? From the start Alison and I felt it right to add to our family number until we knew that more children would seriously harm the wellbeing of those we had already. We reached that point with four. We’d already met disapproval when we went past two, some suggesting that number three must surely have been a mistake. When number four was coming, several reacted ‘Oh no!’ and offered no congratulations. And Alison’s first pregnancy-related medical appointment began with a nurse who assumed we clearly didn’t understand contraception. How could anyone actually want four children?

Well, we did want four. Others may want none, one, two, three or any other number. How many they want doesn’t trouble me. What does is when couples are sharply divided on family size. Several times I’ve been told, ‘We have two children, and I want at least one more, maybe two, but my husband absolutely refuses’. Division on something so fundamental generates pain and frustration for both involved. No-one can know in advance if they’ll be able to have children, nor what family life with children will be like. But some couples admit their pre-marriage conversations about family size lasted only until their differences became uncomfortable and then they backed off. If you asked, ‘Did you talk about this?’ they’d say they had. Did they resolve it? No, and therefore they didn’t realise how different their heart-felt hopes were.

Once there are children, plenty other ‘values’ issues surface:

  • About spending time with them
  • About discipline
  • About education
  • About behaviour
  • About the role of grandparents
  • About the kind of friends they can have
  • About ambitions for the children

And so on. When parents don’t agree on values issues like these, they become pressure points in a relationship.

Money    Alison and I had very little income in our earliest years together. For seven years we had no car, our furniture was almost entirely second hand, and none of our carpets were new. The children’s clothes were castoffs from kids who’d outgrown them, or bought from charity shops. Summer after summer we never had a family vacation, until finally we got a week’s break because friends loaned us their caravan at no cost. Alison would do our budget three times to make outgoings and incomings at least distant acquaintances. We learned three important things. One, you can be happy with just a little. Two, when having one thing means not having another you value what you buy. Three, money was not a subject that divided us because our attitudes to it were aligned.

But many couples I’ve known were far from aligned about finance. One spent, the other saved. One ran up huge debts, the other begged creditors for time to pay. Some didn’t know the other was spending their money, a secret that always came out and caused great tension. Different attitudes to money can wreck a relationship.

Life goals    I was one of a team interviewing people with a sense of calling to overseas missionary work. Harry and Cathy were only in their mid twenties but especially promising: great personalities, clear thinkers, well qualified, full of faith. Everyone enthused about them. Until, that is, we interviewed Harry and Cathy individually, and those who talked with Cathy reported that they’d sensed she had reservations about being far from her family. In the final session Cathy confessed she’d always dreamed of living within only a few miles of her parents, raising her children with their support and having her parents play an integral part in their grandchildren’s lives. Harry’s dream was going overseas to serve disadvantaged and impoverished people, and Cathy had tried to make herself share his dream. But now – at the moment of decision – she couldn’t face that future. So, lovingly, the interview team advised Harry and Cathy to withdraw and find the way forward that would be right for both of them.

Sadly I met some who had squashed a conflicting dream and gone overseas. It never worked. Whether overseas or at home, it’s very hard when one is chasing a dream the other doesn’t share.

My work was always demanding: pastoring growing churches, heading up a mission agency, being president of a seminary. But Alison believed in the rightness of what I was doing as much as I did. Sometimes she’d say: ‘He holds the office, but both of us have the calling’. Jointly owning a life goal is important.

Shared responsibilities    One short story will tell the message here. Ken and Jean were part of a small group who knew each other well enough to be open and honest about deep issues. What was shared in the group stayed in the group. One evening Jean talked about Ken’s love of playing squash and football, but they used up any time he had alongside his growing work responsibilities. Jean had a significant career too, but she had cut out hobby-type interests in order to do the shopping, cook the meals, and keep the house organised. Jean’s pain was clear as she described what that was like. Here’s how she finished: ‘I’d always imagined we’d each have home responsibilities and careers, so each with one and a half jobs. Instead Ken has one job and I have two.’

No-one left the group that evening unaware of how those unshared responsibilities were hurting their relationship.

Values matter, and the more foundational they are the more they matter. When they’re in tension with the values of the person with whom they share life, the more difficult that relationship becomes.


I’d rank friendship as one of the most important foundations for a strong and happy long-term relationship. Here’s when I first realised it.

Before Alison I had an earlier girlfriend called Kate. Kate was outgoing, popular in company, great performer from a platform, clever academically and came from a strong family background. We had good times together.

Except there were two problems. One was almost a culture issue. Her parents were wealthy, lived in an impressive stone built house in the suburbs, and Kate had absorbed tastes in clothing, travel, dining out, that were foreign to me. Then we got near to her birthday. She knew I’d be away on the date of her birthday, so Kate was clear she expected a bouquet of flowers to be delivered on the day. I certainly couldn’t afford flowers, but it seemed to matter so I raided the bank account for her. But it left me feeling uneasy.

The second problem was more decisive. I didn’t have a car, but my aunt loaned hers so I could take Kate out for a day. There were good things about that day, but during the longer drives I realised we’d run out of things to talk about and silence was uncomfortable. I began inventing subjects to fill the void. The day that should have been special was actually stressful. Warning bells rang, and the relationship with Kate gradually came to an end.

With Alison it was different, both then and all the years since. From the beginning there wasn’t just romance there was friendship. We enjoyed being together. We laughed, had fun, chatted about anything and everything, and when there was silence we were at peace. It’s still like that. Alison often reminds me that I vowed life would never be boring, and that’s always been true. We enjoy listening to each other’s stories as much as telling our own. We have stimulating conversations on countless subjects. We love visiting places together, exploring, learning, sharing. We support each other through rough times emotionally and physically. Neither of us fears the other would fail to care, no matter what happens, because we’ve already shown we do. When things have gone wrong, we’ve forgiven and moved on. Some marriage books have a chapter about ‘keeping romance strong’ where they advocate date nights, candlelit bedrooms, or meals in expensive restaurants. And there’s nothing wrong with those if that’s what you want. But romance can happen through every day, every event, every experience, every part of life. It’s in the simple joy of being together, a joy that’s never diminished, and in fact gets stronger and better all the time.

Relationships are unique to a particular couple, so our experience won’t be anyone else’s. But a bedrock of friendship seems crucial – enjoying each other, sharing with each other, depending on each other, laughing with each other, moving forward together.

May whatever relationships you have be productive, strengthening, fulfilling, and fun.

(My apologies this blog is posted late, but this last weekend I prioritised a very special birthday event for Alison with all our family. It was the right – and very happy – thing to do. Thank you for being understanding.)