What I wish I’d known when I was 13

Experience is something young people can’t have. It’s impossible to teach, learn from a book, or borrow from another person. Experience – good or bad – is what we discover during life’s journey. And, if there’s an advantage from being older, you’ve a lot of experience.

My mind started thinking about that after I came across a photo of me when I was 13. It was a semi-official picture taken at school, probably to have a photo of me in my file. I know exactly when the photo was taken because there’s a poppy in my lapel, which was the custom around the time of Remembrance Day each November.[1]

I look young, and untroubled by issues that concern adults. However, I began to wonder what my 13-year-old self would like to have known but didn’t. Were there things it would have been good for me to understand at age 13?

I’d like to have known that one day I’d have a girlfriend

I’m starting here because girls are exactly what this 13-year-old boy was bothered about. Girls were no longer a nuisance. In fact, they had become rather interesting.

But, at 13, and with only a brother, girls were a mystery to me. How could you know if a girl liked you, and what should you say to her? If only everyone was fitted with a light and when two were attracted to each other their lights would go on. But we hadn’t been fitted with lights, and the mystery remained for a few more years.

By my later teens, though, I had a wide circle of friends, and my breakthrough realisation was that getting close to a girl was less about attraction, and more about being interested in each other, about really getting to know someone, enjoying being together, sharing ideas and plans. Then, one Sunday evening, I found myself walking up a road in Edinburgh chatting to a girl who was more interesting than anyone else. Decades later, now with children and grandchildren, Alison is still more interesting than anyone else.

The 13-year-old me would have been so much more at peace if only I’d known that would happen.

I’d like to have had a career goal

Some know the work they want to do from an early age. Perhaps their ambition is to be a ballerina, an international footballer, win a Formula One championship, do research that wins a Nobel Peace Prize, invent world-changing technology, write block-buster novels. They’re good thoughts, but most will disappear when faced with massive challenges. Some, however, will dedicate themselves to a particular career path, and get there. They’ll be great doctors, top scientists, own a profitable business, or become a member of Parliament.

But I had no idea what I would do for a career. When I was eight or nine I thought I’d like to be a bus driver, or become an Automobile Association patrolman who rode around on an old style yellow motorcycle with sidecar looking for members whose cars needed rescue.[2] But these were just a child’s idle dreams, not serious career goals.

At 13 I had no idea what work I might do. However, when I was 15, my school ran a careers evening with spokespeople describing their work. One was a police officer, and he highlighted all the different specialities that existed within policing. The wide range of options appealed to me, so later I read up about police service. Then I found a problem. In those days the minimum height for men to enter the police force was 5’8”, and in my area even higher at 5’10”. I didn’t think I’d reach either of those heights, so abandoned that plan.[3] When I was 16 I began to think about leaving school,[4] but had no idea still about a career.

I’ve mixed feelings now about that lack of a sense of direction. A career goal would have motivated me about my school work, and reassured me about where my life was headed. Yet, without a particular goal, I was open to any possibility, and that may have been helpful. In the end I began in journalism, became a church minister, then led a large international mission agency, and finished by being President of a seminary in the USA. I changed my work (not just my employer) several times, something that is now considered normal. I was ahead of my time.

So, though I wish I’d had a career goal, the lack of one did me no harm. I was flexible, and accepted change when it presented itself.

It would have helped if I’d had confidence in my own abilities

When I was 13 I was moderately good at rugby. I could tackle, catch and pass the ball, and kick it well too. I was also good at cricket, not so much as a batter but as a bowler and fielder. Somehow I could flip my wrist to make the ball break sharply left, completely confusing batters as the ball zipped past and hit their wickets. And, because I had fast reactions and virtually never dropped a catch, I relished every chance to be a slip fielder.

But sport was simply enjoyable. It was a pastime, not a passion nor a career goal. What was supposed to matter to me aged 13 was my academic work. But, in that area, I had every reason to be modest with my expectations. My teachers were equally modest in their expectations of me. When I was 13 the set curriculum I had to study covered a wide range of subjects, including physics, chemistry, biology and Latin. When I was 14 I was allowed to narrow my schedule. I dropped all the sciences and Latin with the approval and relief of my teachers. After another year I was due to take national exams. My teachers wouldn’t present me for the German exam since I was bound to fail. And fail was exactly all I achieved in three subjects, French, Maths, and Arithmetic. My only successes were in English and history, and I passed those at a higher level the following year.

But, with that track record, I had no confidence in my abilities. I never imagined I could be admitted to university, and no-one ever suggested I should try. In fact a career advisor advised me to start work in a department store sweeping the floors, and perhaps I could work my way up to being a store manager. I swept that idea aside, but he was not the only one with low expectations of me in those early to mid teen years.

For a while that was discouraging and unhelpful. Yet, looking back, it may have triggered a desire to prove them all wrong. Which was probably the best response.

I wish I’d understood that not all people are good

I grew up in a loving family unit with two parents and a brother. Nearby were aunts, uncles, and cousins we saw regularly. Our town was relatively crime free, big enough to have shops for everyday needs but small enough that traffic jams were unknown. I walked or cycled to school, came home for lunch, and, when daylight allowed, spent evenings playing football or cricket with friends. During summer holidays from school I’d play golf in the morning and cricket in the afternoon, and when I wanted a change I’d play cricket in the morning and golf in the afternoon. I had a very privileged early life.

The only downside is that it was also a very protected life. When I was 13 almost all I knew of the ills of the world was that I should never go off with a stranger, that a girl in my class had died from a serious illness, and a boy had fallen from his bike in front of a lorry and been killed. But I didn’t know of anyone dying of cancer, anyone getting divorced, anyone without food, anyone committing a major crime. My parents would watch the news on TV, but, as far as I was concerned, bad things happened far away. I had a sheltered existence.

That resulted in an unhelpful innocence, a naivety that everyone is kind and good and no harm can befall you. Of course we must not make children fearful or untrusting. But – as with many things – I wish there had been an age-appropriate way of making me aware that bad things happen in this world.

From my later teens and into my twenties I was a journalist with a national newspaper. That gave me a rude awakening to tragedies and evils. I attended car, rail and plane disasters where mangled bodies were pulled from wreckage. I sat through murder trials, such as the killing of a 15-year-old girl by beating and strangling.[5] It shocked me that one person should so violently and deliberately end another person’s life. There were cases of gang warfare, often drug related. Some politicians were considered corrupt, others attention-seeking. I attended court sessions and local government meetings which were supremely tedious. Some of my colleagues were deep in debt, unfaithful in their marriages, addicted to alcohol, or dying of lung cancer. Of course there were also ‘good news’ stories, but I was used to them from my upbringing. It was the ‘bad news’ that jolted me into a broader understanding of the world.

It would have helped me, certainly by the time I was 13, to have learned something about the harsher sides of life.

I could have known more of how poor most of the world is

My Aunt Milla – whose working life was mostly as a community nurse – rarely spent much on her housing. During two periods she lived in run-down tenements. The first had no toilet facilities inside the building. None at all. Instead there was a small hut out the back which contained a simple toilet. No wash-hand basin, and sometimes no toilet roll, only torn sheets of newspaper which were guaranteed to leave their mark. Day or night, perhaps in pouring rain, the ‘need to go’ was an unpleasant adventure into the outdoors to use the ‘privy’. Milla moved upmarket with her later tenement living. There still was no toilet in the flat, but there was one on the ‘half-landing’ (so named because it was up some steps from the level of flats just below and down some steps from the level of flats above). Since there were two flats on each level, the toilet might be shared by four households. Perhaps queues were avoided only by exploring for ‘vacancies’ at toilets on other half-landings.

These were poor facilities – unhygienic and inconvenient – but were common in many towns and cities, and not just in the UK. We often stayed with my aunt, and therefore used the outhouse or half-landing toilets many times. At home we had indoor plumbing, but I knew many lived with facilities like my aunt, so never thought of her situation as poor or bad. When I was 13, I had no idea at all that most of the world lived in very much worse circumstances.

Almost 30 years later I visited remote desert areas of Pakistan, sleeping overnight in tribal villages. Toilet facilities? The far side of the sand dunes. In a mountainside village in Nepal, there was an outhouse for toilet use, but it was no more than a small enclosure around an open hole with charcoal six feet below to (unsuccessfully) deaden the stench. In a remote Congo village I thought that children were wearing dirty and torn t-shirts as play clothes, then realised those t-shirts were their only clothes. There I also met a mother with seriously malnourished children, hoping for help from medical missionaries. I saw many small houses with damaged roofs. I was told: “There’s no longer anyone skilled in repairing roofs. When people don’t have money to buy food, no-one pays to have their roof repaired.”

I could multiply these stories, but won’t. The hard truth is that a large part of the world’s population live in poverty. I never knew that when I was 13. As children grow up, and gradually decide on lifestyle and career priorities, shouldn’t those priorities take account of world need? In affluent countries, we shelter children from harsh realities. That’s understandable, but should they not know billions are less well off, and their needs may matter more than our comfort?

I wish I’d known what I needed to do for God to become real in my life

God was never absent from my life (nor is he from anyone’s), but when I was 13 I didn’t relate much to God other than with some prayers. My mother told me several times that she made a special commitment to God when she was 13. That commitment coloured everything she did, and a lot of her time went on supporting church activities and helping neighbours. So, when I became 13, I imagined something might happen in my life to make me a Christian like her. Nothing did, and as the next few years passed I wondered if it ever would.

What I’d failed to realise is that I had a responsibility to reach out to God. I was waiting for God to invade me while, in a sense, he was waiting to be invited. That did all change when I was 18, and I’ve written about that before (https://occasionallywise.com/2021/02/20/serious-business/).

It wasn’t that I was ignorant about the Christian message. I just needed to respond to it. Thankfully I was only five years beyond 13 in doing so. But, if I’d known sooner, my life would have changed much earlier.

Writing this blog post about what I wished I’d known when I was 13 has kept generating more thoughts than I’ve recorded here. Perhaps I’ll set them down another time. And one day I may also write things I’m glad I did know when I was 13. That seems just as important a subject.

I’d encourage you to think what you wish you’d known when you were younger, and what you’re glad you did know. You might be surprised about your conclusions.

[1] Fighting in World War I ceased at the 11th hour of the 11th month in 1918, commemorated annually throughout Commonwealth countries ever since. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Remembrance_Day

[2] There’s a good photo of an AA motorcycle and sidecar here: https://www.theaa.com/breakdown-cover/our-heritage-vehicles

[3] Actually I did reach 5’8” but my interests by then lay elsewhere.

[4] In Scotland, the school leaving age was raised to 14 in 1901, and though from the 1940s there were plans to make the minimum age 15 that was never made law. The minimum age was set at 16 in 1973.

[5] The case set a new legal precedent because the accused was identified by having left unique bite marks on his victim’s body. See https://www.dentaltown.com/magazine/article/7528/the-biggar-murder-some-personal-recollections

Have a wonderful Christmas!

Before I began writing this blog nearly a year ago, I decided to avoid highlighting special events or seasons of the year. And then, at the beginning of January, my first blog was about ‘Resolutions’. I failed right at the start!

And I’ve failed right at the end of the year because I could not ignore Christmas, writing two blogs on the odd ancestors of Jesus, that strange family list which culminates in the birth of the Son of God in Bethlehem.

The last blogs of this year had to take account of the season. How could I ignore the birth of Jesus?

So, my original decision abandoned, as Christmas Day begins where I am in the UK, let me say HAPPY CHRISTMAS to those who’ve already been celebrating this day in places east of where I am, and the same to those who’ll celebrate in a few hours in places to the west.

The blog has been read this year in 32 countries. As I post this, those already celebrating Christmas include readers in Indonesia, South Korea, China, Australia, India, Pakistan. Those yet to reach Christmas Day may be in the USA, Canada, Ecuador, Chile, Bahamas. Unsurprisingly by far the greatest number of readers are in the UK (and I hope they’re now in bed!)

Wherever this is read, please know I’m grateful for your interest. This Christmas I’m praying that you know God’s peace and God’s goodness in your life, and that 2022 holds many blessings for you.

With warmest appreciation,

Pouring your heart into what you do

In the last blog, I asked: ‘If we are to have a life well-lived, what are (at least some) of the principles we should live by?’ I used the story of building St Vitus Cathedral to illustrate three of those principles.

I’ll use another building project this time – a building so remarkable it’s one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

My work took me to India many times. Alison was able to come with me on one of those trips. While we were in Delhi, an affluent Indian friend offered to drive us to the Taj Mahal. That’s a 115 mile (185 km) journey, not far but likely to take a long time on a crowded road. It didn’t take a long time, not with my friend observing his rules of the road, which were not many.

The Taj Mahal is every bit as impressive as its reputation and its story.

It exists because of love and loss. In 1607 the 14-year-old Shah Jahan, soon to be Mughal emperor, glimpsed a girl selling silk and glass beads. She was Mumtaz Mahal, a Persian princess aged just 15. Jahan told his father he wanted to marry this girl. Five years later he did.

He had other wives as well, but his love was supremely for Mumtaz who travelled everywhere with him, and bore him many children. In 1631 she died giving birth to their 14th child. Jahan was distraught, and vowed to build the richest and finest of mausoleums over her grave.

He kept his word.

At the heart of the Taj Mahal complex is a tomb built of white marble brought from all over India and central Asia. Throughout the site 28 varieties of precious and semi-precious stones were used for inlay work. More than 1000 elephants transported construction materials. A 9.3 mile earth ramp was built to bring the heavy stone close to the building site, where an intricate post-and-beam pulley system placed the blocks exactly in position. Overall some 20,000 skilled artisans worked on the Taj – masons, stonecutters, dome-builders, inlayers, carvers, painters, embroiderers, calligraphers.

The tomb itself consists of a large square plinth on which stands a symmetrical building topped by a large dome and four lesser domes. Four minarets are built just outside the plinth, each tilted slightly away so that they could never collapse on to the tomb. Other magnificent buildings were constructed, and beautiful gardens with long pools, paths, fountains and ornamental trees. One of the breathtaking views is to see the Taj reflected in the water, the exact hue of the white marble varying according to the intensity of the sunlight or moonlight.

It took some 22 years until the whole site was complete. As well as being one of the Seven Wonders, the Taj Mahal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It draws between 7 and 8 million visitors each year (though less during Covid virus restrictions).

From its story, I draw these lessons for how to do our best with our lives.

Not to plan is to plan to fail

I’m not a fan of the sub-heading I’ve just used; it seems to denigrate spontaneity. But it has truth. Big enterprises require good planning and preparation. Without those, they do fail.

I’ll give two examples from my home country.

Above Oban – which sits on the west coast of Scotland – stands McCaig’s Tower. It’s also known as McCaig’s Folly. John Stuart McCaig was a wealthy banker who admired Greek and Roman architecture. So, for the hill overlooking his town, he designed an elaborate building based on the Colosseum in Rome. Inside its walls would be a museum, art gallery, and a central tower in which he’d place statues of McCaig and his family. Work began in 1897, and by 1902 the outer ring had been built. It was 200 metres in circumference, with two tiers of 94 arches. It was very impressive.

But that’s all there ever was. All work stopped in 1902 because McCaig died of a cardiac arrest, aged 78.

Personally I feel a Colosseum look-a-like above a Scottish coastal town is out of place. But I commend McCaig for being a man of vision. However, I can’t commend planning which doesn’t include funds to complete the project if the benefactor dies. McCaig’s Folly has never been finished.

Edinburgh has a monument with a similar story. In 1822 wealthy Edinburgh citizens raised money for a memorial to Scots soldiers who had died in the Napoleonic wars. They wanted to replicate the Parthenon in Athens stone for stone. It would be built on Calton Hill which overlooks the centre of the city.

The work began, and twelve columns were raised. The lintels were put in place, using the largest and heaviest stone ever quarried in Scotland. It took 12 horses and 70 men to get the stone up the hill.

In 1829 the money ran out. Only half the funds needed had been raised. The wealthy citizens had not put together an adequate ‘business plan’ to take the project to completion. Perhaps they blamed others for not being generous, but the folly of bad planning was theirs. What was intended as a National Monument is sometimes called a ‘national disgrace’.

Failure to plan or prepare adequately never works.

I have interviewed dozens of people for jobs. I’d ask: ‘What do you know about our organisation? Perhaps you’ve got information from our website?’ And about 50 per cent of the time, the answer would be, ‘No, I don’t really know anything. I didn’t look at your website.’ That was a bad answer. How could people think I’d appoint them to a senior position in a major organisation about which they hadn’t bothered to do the most basic research? It was a terrible failure of preparation for an interview.

Detailed and careful preparation went into the construction of the Taj Mahal. That building really mattered to the emperor, so he ensured everything was done right.

There is a timeless principle there. What we do should matter so much, we plan and prepare well.

If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well

For a few years, Alison and I helped a small church in a run-down area of Edinburgh. We ran a children’s club, did pastoral visiting, and I did occasional preaching. There were many challenges for that church, including its building. It was small and inadequate for the work the leaders wished they could do. Why so small? Because it was never meant to be more than the hall alongside the main building, but the main building had never been built.

That’s not unique. On my preaching travels around the UK, several times I went to a church which began decades earlier meeting in a hall until its main worship building was erected. But they were still in the hall. Nothing more had ever been done.

Lack of money would be one reason for the incomplete work. But, sometimes, complacency. I imagine the first members found the hall met their needs because, in those days, there weren’t many people. As the years passed, only a few more joined them. There was always enough space. Unsurprisingly the motivation to give sacrificially to erect their main sanctuary building gradually faded. Their hall was ‘good enough’. And so it had stayed for a hundred  years.

I’m no fan of millions getting spent on large church buildings, but I am a great fan of doing everything needed for the mission of the church. Originally there was a big vision for those churches, but over the years it had dimmed and died. I can’t be glad about that.

I’d say the same about any enterprise. It’s about finishing what you start. Committing all the skills and resources that are needed. Believing that if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.

The Taj Mahal teaches me that lesson. Of course the Taj is extravagant, but probably not outrageously extravagant for an emperor. And not for an emperor grieving for the princess he’d loved with all his heart. He longed to give her the best he could give. And he did.

Living life well always means giving the best we can give.

Pouring your heart into what you do

We enjoyed living in Aberdeen in the north east of Scotland. Summer was Alison’s favourite season, not for the weather but because she could work in the garden until after 11.00 each evening. Aberdeen is far enough north that night-time in mid-summer is truly dark for only two or three hours. Alison could probably have gardened until midnight, so 11.00 was no problem.

She loves gardening. It’s more of a passion than a hobby. She belongs to the local gardening group where experts give lectures. She joins webinars with top gardeners sharing their knowledge. She plans out her garden work, and keeps a journal of what she’s planted and how it’s prospered. A garden is never finished, always on the way, so Alison is never quite satisfied with her flowers or vegetables. But – as the principal beneficiary – I know she does a great job.

The simple truth is that we give our best to the things we love. In high school my best marks were in English and history because I enjoyed studying those subjects. My friend David excelled in all things scientific, and became a leading research scientist. Another of my school contemporaries was great at golf, poured his heart into it, became a professional and played in the Open Championship.

We strive for excellence in the things we love. What we love isn’t always related to our career. It can be family, or church, or our sport, or our hobby, or taking on civic responsibilities, or caring for the disadvantaged in our community, or rehoming abandoned dogs, or studying philosophy. We’re all unique, and so will be our passions. And where they lie, so we will direct our energy, our time, and our skill.

It’s good and right to bring passion to bear on all we do. Emperor Shah Jahan never dreamed of building a mausoleum for his wife. But then she died, and the love he’d had for her motivated him to build a supreme tribute to her that millions today admire. He poured his heart into the Taj Mahal. And it shows.

A life well-lived involves planning and preparing wisely. Doing everything well. Pouring our heart into all we do.

One more set of principles next time, again from a construction project. But this one is different. It fell down.


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You don’t know how much good you’re doing

‘You don’t know me,’ she began, ‘but my name’s Sandra and you changed my life!’

That’s not how most conversations began after I’d preached. I’d spoken to nearly 3000 at Spring Harvest, a very large Christian gathering, and afterwards several had taken their turn to thank me. I’d noticed a young lady standing off to one side, waiting until I was clear of the queue.

Sandra had stunned me with her opening sentence. ‘I need to hear how I could possibly have changed your life!’ I told her.

I listened to her story. In her late teens she’d sunk into a deep depression. Neither counselling nor medication had lifted her from a very dark place, and she’d become suicidal. Fearing for her life, doctors had committed her to a psychiatric hospital. Family and friends had visited, and her care was excellent, but nothing improved her mental health over the next two years.

Then a friend brought her a tape to listen to. ‘It was a tape of you preaching at a large gathering,’ she told me.

‘Really?’ I asked. ‘What was I talking about?’

‘You spoke about us being engraved on the palms of God’s hands, and you said that to God we are unforgettable.’

I remembered that address. I’d been asked to preach at the communion service of a national assembly, and had based my talk on verses from Isaiah chapter 49 which include these words from God: ‘See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands’ (v. 16). I’d described running my hand over an engraved bowl, feeling how the words were cut right into the glass. Engraving was deep and permanent – it was unforgettable. And the image of us being engraved on God’s hands carried the message: we are unforgettable to him.

Sandra continued: ‘I believed my life was meaningless and insignificant. I didn’t matter – I was completely forgettable. I listened to what you said, played the tape again, and then again and again. And I began to believe what you said. God had not forgotten me.’

That was the turning point in her life. She took positive steps to improve her health and, with support from family, she was released from hospital. She found work, and she found faith. And that faith had brought her to Spring Harvest where I happened to be one of the main speakers.

Until then I hadn’t known there was anything special about that ‘engraved on the palms of God’s hands’ message. It had been appreciated by those present, but that was all. Except, it wasn’t all. Someone locked in a psychiatric ward got to hear it, and her life began to change.

It happened that I met Sandra and heard her story, but I might never have done.

I suspect that often we never get to know how much good our words and actions have done. It’s hard to know exactly how often that happens, because we can’t count what we don’t know!

I’ll describe some instances of significant things I might easily never have known about. I apologise that they’re all my stories, but, of course, how could others tell me stories of things they probably know nothing about?

Here are six instances when someone didn’t realise the significance of what they said or did.

One  As a young journalist I shared a room with two others at a residential conference. As we settled down to sleep, there was a short conversation about whether we believed in God. I said I did, to which John, one of my companions, responded: ‘I respect you believing in God, but what I can’t respect is that you don’t then do anything about it.’ (Described more fully in my earlier blog ‘Serious business’ 20.2.21) Those words hit me hard. He was right. It was nonsense that I believed God was real but didn’t do anything about it. John’s statement pushed me into a much deeper search for faith. John never knew his words had that effect.

Two  A few weeks after John’s tough words, I sat with other young adults asking questions about Christianity. All sorts of issues got raised. Should Christians be pacifists? Must a Christian marry only another Christian? Aren’t churches out of touch with society? Then Irene asked: ‘What do Christians mean when they say Christ died for them?’ It was Irene’s question, but also mine, except until that moment I hadn’t known it. What Christians meant when they said Christ died for them was exactly what I needed to understand. Just over 24 hours later, late into the night, I found the answer and gave my life to Christ. From that moment everything about my future changed. Later, Irene and I often talked about faith but she never knew how significant her question had been for me.

Three  In the run-up to Christmas, BMS World Mission sent hundreds of cards to supporters. I signed all of them personally because I wanted people to know how much we valued them. I never expected I’d get a reply. But I did. Every year a few would write: ‘I live alone, hardly see anyone, and yours is the only Christmas card I’ve received. I’m so grateful you thought of me.’ I’d never imagined our Christmas card would mean so much and nearly never knew it did.

Four  Probably all preachers know that some of their sermons die in mid air. The words never reach the congregation. The people show no signs of response. Twice – in two different churches – it was on the tip of my tongue to say: ‘I’m stopping now – this sermon is not helping – let’s just move to the closing hymn’. But I slogged on. The outcome was not what I expected. On both occasions, far more than usual thanked me for the sermon, and made it clear their words weren’t just politeness; they really were grateful. I could not escape the conclusion that message had done good. It had felt dreadful but only for the preacher, not for the congregation.

Five  Every sermon can’t be a ‘fireworks’ show, and my sermon didn’t feel bad, just ordinary. It was just a straightforward message about the Holy Spirit. I reached the end. Stopped. Normally people stir, but this time they were oddly quiet. Then Don stood. He’d been a Christian for only a year and was a quiet kind of man. He looked around at the others who were present, and said, ‘Alistair, on behalf of all of us, thank you for that message. It was so clear, so encouraging and so helpful’. People around him nodded their agreement. I wanted to say ‘Really?’ Instead I had the grace and good sense to thank him for his kind words. And when the service was over I went away once again amazed at how ignorant I’d been about the effect of my sermon.

These are all positive stories, but I must include one which is unfortunately negative.

Six  It was another major conference address, this one unhelpful for one person. (Included also in blog ‘Why quit while you’re ahead? 10.7.21) During my talk I described how one of my daughters nearly drowned when caught in a fast current. If someone hadn’t spotted her, she’d have been lost. Afterwards a lady came to me. She was angry and distraught. Why? Because her son had been murdered by drowning, and what I had described about my daughter had stirred her grief enormously. Part of me thought ‘I couldn’t have known that’ but I apologised profusely for upsetting her and promised to think more carefully about stories I included in my talks. She accepted my words, but was still distressed when she left.

Truly, we don’t know the effect of our words, or, if we do, only later.

I’ve reached these conclusions.

We are not the best judges of ourselves.    We may think we’re acting rightly, or speaking profoundly, but the real judge is the person on the receiving end. And their reaction may be very different to what we expect. Our words may be ordinary but hugely significant in the life of a person facing special circumstances. Or the finest oratory, or most generous of actions, may mean nothing to them because of problems they’re facing. Our skills and abilities are not what determine the responses of those around us. Often their responses are far better than our efforts deserve. We just don’t know what effect our words or actions will have.

We’re not in control of what’s significant for someone.    As I’ve greeted those leaving church after the service, I’ve been told, ‘Thank you, Alistair. That was such a special service for me.’ So I’ve asked what part of the sermon meant so much to them. ‘No, not the sermon,’ they’ve replied. ‘It was the phrase you used near the beginning that it’s good for us all to be together. That’s such an important thing and I’m glad you reminded me.’ I nod positively, but inside I’m thinking ‘I slaved for hours preparing my sermon, but what meant so much was an unscripted, unrehearsed phrase. Frustrating!’ It is frustrating, but actually rather wonderful. Someone was helped and encouraged; that’s the only thing that matters.

If you want to know how much you’re appreciated, leave.    That’s been my not-too-serious advice to pastors and other leaders. Farewell gatherings are full of speeches expressing gratitude for the many wonderful things done by the departing colleague, and how much they meant as a friend and fellow-worker. Mostly those statements are true, but they’d never have known if they hadn’t been leaving.

We need reasonable caution about what we say.    I learned that from the lady I upset with one story in my address. It was an innocent mistake, but in the future I did my best to imagine how listeners might react to illustrations used in my talks. We can’t shy away from recounting real life experiences, but can take sensible steps to minimise any upset.

If someone doesn’t know what they should know, tell them.    At some funerals, an opportunity is given to share a good memory about the deceased person. I’ve listened as story after story was told of the good effect that person had on people’s lives, and wondered, ‘Did they ever know this?’ Probably they didn’t. When my dad was in his mid-70s I wrote him a letter thanking him for being a great father to me. From my youngest I’d known he loved me, supported me, believed in me, and taken delight in my achievements. I was privileged. So I wrote down what all that had meant for me, and thanked him from the bottom of my heart, then sealed the letter and posted it. Several days later I saw Dad. He wasn’t a man who talked about feelings, but he thanked me for the letter and then said it was the best letter he’d ever received in his whole life. He died just a few years later. I was glad I’d been able to tell him before then how much he’d meant in my life.

The overall message of this blog is simply its title: you don’t know how much good you’re doing. You really are doing good. Shyness or circumstances may have stopped people telling you. But, I promise, if you act kindly and speak wisely people are being helped. Sometimes you’ve simply encouraged them along life’s way. And sometimes what you’ve said or done was life-changing for them. Take that to heart. It’s true. It’s remarkable. It’s something worth knowing. You should feel good about it.


Perhaps the next thing you should do is tell someone what they’ve meant in your life. But another thing – if this blog has been helpful – is to share it with others. Use the ‘Share’ button, or point them to www.occasionallywise.com. That might be life-changing for them!

When is advice good advice?

‘I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself.’ The words of Oscar Wilde, the Irish poet and playwright.

Probably Wilde’s quip resonates with many of us because, while there’s no shortage of advice-givers, the advice offered often lacks wisdom or relevance.

I was frequently told ‘You must read this book. You’ll never regret it.’ They were so wrong. I almost always regretted it.

For example, Jack told me about a book that would change my understanding about demon possession. Now, demon possession was never remotely close to the forefront of my thinking, and I couldn’t imagine any book would improve its position. But Jack was persistent, enthusiastic and I reckoned he’d accuse me of having a closed mind if I wouldn’t read this book. ‘Only one bookshop in the city sells it,’ he said. That made me suspicious, but reluctantly I relented. It was absolutely as bad a book as I’d feared, virtually suggesting demons explained everything from cancer to ingrown toenails. I wasn’t helped. Jack despaired of me.

But, at the same time, some advice has really helped. During a period of deep depression, I met a few times with a psychologist. I talked about getting angry with people, and then feeling guilty about my anger. ‘Why do they make you angry?’ she asked. I described promises and confidences not kept, untrue stories told, attempts to undermine my leadership. And more like those. ‘Alistair,’ she said strongly, ‘any of us would be angry when people do things like that. You’re human! You’re bound to be angry. You need to be kinder to yourself.’ Her words hit home. Anger can get out of hand, but it’s also a natural reaction when harm is done to you. She was right: I did need to be kinder to myself. I’ve always appreciated that advice.

So, how do we know what advice to listen to? Here’s what I’ve learned.

Simon’s advice may not be equal to Sarah’s advice    The seriousness with which advice should be taken isn’t only about what’s said but about who’s saying it. If Simon is not someone you trust, but Sarah has proven her worth, you listen much more seriously to her than to him.

I met with Dan right at the start of my time heading up a large mission agency. It was a get-to-know-you conversation, during which I asked, ‘Dan, what are the important things we should be doing next?’

‘I don’t think we should be doing anything different,’ he said. ‘We’ve been through a lot of change. Now we need to settle down, consolidate, allow us to get used to things as they are.’

Since this was only an introductory chat, I didn’t tell him ‘Settling down is the last thing we need’. But he was wrong. The agency had begun to change, but only begun. We needed a sharper strategic focus, a major management reorganisation, a fresh approach to fundraising, an upgrade to technology, and a clearer message to our supporters. All of that in the next year, two years at most. Dan was only three years off retirement, and wanted a quiet life as he eased himself out. His was not the voice I needed to listen to.

Who advice comes from matters.

Does the advice-giver have the knowledge to justify their advice?    Modern-day church ministry is dogged by ‘latest fad’ movements. Maybe they’ve always happened, and movements just come and go more rapidly these days. The latest was in town – yet another ‘new move of the Spirit’ – and it was helping some people. But it promoted the idea that all you needed for holiness were supernatural experiences which would move you instantly from sinner to saint. There was no mention of denying self, and striving day by day to live God’s way. The movement offered zero to hero in half an hour. So, in a Sunday morning sermon I clarified what was right and what was wrong. When the service was over, Kevin was waiting.

‘I don’t think your theology was right this morning,’ Kevin said.

‘Okay, please tell me where you think I went wrong.’

‘Well, it was different from what I was hearing at meetings I went to last week.’

I asked Kevin to explain the ways in which my theology was different, but he wasn’t at all clear about that. A theological discussion wasn’t for Kevin who had probably never read a single book on doctrine. He was a good friend and a lovely Christian, but not equipped to give me theological advice.

Doctors have told me the patient they dread begins the consultation with: ‘I’ve looked up my symptoms on the internet, and…’ Usually they’ve concluded they have some horrible disease. They don’t, but are hard to convince. They’ve no medical training at all, but presume to tell the doctor their medical condition.

Advice-givers should have some credentials to support what they’re saying.

Does the advice-giver have the experience to justify their advice?    There’s an old saying about not judging a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes (or moccasins). The message is this: only when you see, hear, feel and think like another can you understand that person. True.

But some who gave me advice knew little of the realities of my life and work:

Life as a pastor

  • Being available 24/7, and discovering the only way to have a vacation was to leave town
  • At one hour being with parents rejoicing at the safe arrival of their new baby, at the next hour consoling a family because their ten-year-old had been knocked from his bicycle and killed
  • Having no option but to produce two 4000 word thoughtful and stimulating sermons by Sunday, with no option to postpone

 Life as a CEO

  • Having oversight of the wellbeing and work of hundreds
  • Knowing the whole organisation would be judged by what I said and did
  • Accepting responsibility for the future of a 200+ year old mission agency

And much more than these snippets.

Most who gave me advice had never lived that life, never carried major leadership responsibilities, never felt weary to the bone day after day after day, never had to end a friend’s employment because their work was poor, never had to account for an annual budget of millions, never thought about their answerability to God for the people in their care.

One businessman thought he could tell me how to manage my time. He explained that he had many appointments every day, so when his schedule was full his assistant told people they couldn’t see him until a free time came which might be weeks away. He advised me to have that policy too.

Really? As if I could refuse to see the person just told he’s got three months to live, or not visit the family whose 16-year-old has run away, or not talk with the seriously depressed person planning suicide, or not spend time with the wife whose husband has died and she has a funeral to arrange. The businessman was well-meaning but unaware of the realities of my life.

Advice is rarely good if it comes from someone who doesn’t know and empathise with your experiences and obligations . They haven’t walked in your shoes.

Is the advice-giver cranky? (Americans mostly use the word ‘cranky’ to mean irritable, but I’m using the word in the British sense of eccentric or strange.)

There’s no shortage of eccentric people. Most work places and churches have them. Their odd-ball ideas can be stimulating and challenging because they see the world differently, and we can all benefit from that. Up to a point. But when cranky people pushed their views on me, things got difficult.

Cameron was strange. He’d been in many churches, but, he said, none were really right for him. He was filled with ideas of what church should be like, one of which was that we should drop most of our modern worship songs and go back to singing the great hymns and anthems of the past. ‘That’s what people are saying they want, you know’ he assured me.

By then I’d developed a particular distrust of the phrase ‘people are saying’. I usually responded with ‘How many people?’ to which the reluctant answer would be ‘two or three’ – not too impressive.

I asked Cameron ‘Which people are saying that?’

‘All those I’ve spoken to,’ he replied.

I already knew that, because I’d heard from some of them. Cameron was about six foot three inches tall, broad chested, and equipped with a voice and force of personality that matched his physique. He’d accost someone and give his speech about the need for the old hymns. They’d listen reluctantly but patiently. And then, when his diatribe ended, he’d look them straight in the eye and say: ‘You agree…?’ And they would answer ‘yes’ because they were desperate for the conversation to end. But they didn’t mean it.

But, as far as Cameron was concerned, they shared his view. And now he was telling me we should go back to worship music of 150 years earlier. I doubted if there were even two in the congregation who really shared Cameron’s views, and I would have been derelict to follow his advice. We changed nothing. We try not to judge, but a good pastor or leader can’t follow one person’s whim.

Does the advice-giver grasp the whole picture?    There are many things wrong with the image of a CEO sitting on top of an organisational pyramid, and it’s even less appropriate for the role of a pastor. But, I’ll use it just to make the point that the person at the top has the best view of the wider landscape. Those further down will see more clearly what’s working on the ground, but not the big picture.

Leaders should see the big picture. They should know the range of strategic options. They should understand the context around them, how it’s changing, what’s in their favour and what’s against. And know the strengths and weaknesses of the organisation, including the skills of members and staff. They should be aware of the views held by staff, volunteers, supporters.

But most advice-givers can’t see the big picture. That doesn’t mean the person ‘at the top’ should make all the decisions. That would limit all wisdom to one person. But it does mean this: that the value of someone’s advice is limited by what they know of the big picture.

For example, suppose a fundraiser wants their budget tripled (‘We could make such a big impact with more investment in advertising’) but has no idea of the effect that diversion of resources would have on other areas of work. They think they have a great plan, but it’s not because they lack a wider understanding. Their ideas won’t get much attention.

But, in the end, good advice is good advice    The points I’ve listed earlier are valid. There are good reasons to be wary about whose advice you take. But – notwithstanding all the caution – good advice is always worth having, and it can come from the unlikeliest of people.

During an interview related to becoming pastor in Aberdeen, I was asked what my priority would be if appointed. I didn’t hesitate. ‘Mission!’ For several minutes I enthused about the importance of churches reaching out into their communities with the gospel message and showing practical love and care for needy people. I was passionate about mission. So passionate that when I stopped there was silence. Until one older lady spoke. ‘That’s all very well, but please remember that many of us just need a pastor who’ll look after us.’

Afterwards I mulled over her words. I didn’t really like what she’d said. A church can’t exist to benefit its existing members. Its focus must be on the world, and bringing God’s love there. That lady was representing a wrong view of what the church was for. And yet an inner voice told me not to miss the wisdom in her words about the role of the pastor. The world couldn’t be a pastor’s only focus. The members – the lonely, the sick, the worried, the broken-hearted – they had needs too. There was a lot of value in what she’d said. When I became pastor I did all I could to honour her request. It came from an unexpected person, but it was the best advice.

None of us are all-knowing or all-wise, so we need advice. There is good advice to be had, but it must come from reliable sources. Leaders who choose their advice wisely become better and stronger in their roles. They win respect, endure, and even enjoy what they do.


If there’s been any good advice in this blog, please do what Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde said and pass it on. (Use the ‘Share’ button, or forward www.occasionallywise.com to them.) But ignore his comment that good advice is never of use to oneself. Good advice is always good to have.