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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Not the world as it was meant to be

It was 1997, and on my first evening in Calcutta (later renamed Kolkata), I walked with an Indian friend through the streets. It was an eye-opening experience.

Families were settling down for the night under flimsy shelters. Parents wrapped babies and little children in sack-like material to insulate them from the cold as they laid them down to sleep on the concrete sidewalks.

I was shocked and disturbed. I asked my Indian friend, ‘How long until these people have a proper home?’

He smiled. It was my first time in India, and my ignorance was obvious. He answered gently but clearly. ‘Alistair, in the sense you mean they will never have a proper home. The parents – like their parents – were born here on the sidewalk, grew up here, as will their children. They will never have any other home.’

Deeply troubled I went back to the villa where I was staying. In the middle of the night I woke suddenly. A storm had broken over the city, and my shutters were banging and I could hear rain pouring down. I was safe, dry, and comfortable, but I knew those parents and their babies were lying out there in the street with nowhere else to go, and no way to get dry until morning when the rain would stop and the sun come out.

Deep in my heart I sensed God saying, ‘This is not how I meant my world to be, and this is not how it has to be’.

A few years later I was in an African country where two liberation movements had fought a brutal civil war. After visiting rural villages, four of us drove for hours on dusty roads back to the capital. Half way there we stopped to stretch our legs. I needed relief of a different kind, and walked back up the road for a little privacy. One of my friends shouted after me, ‘Use the ditch, but don’t go across it into the bushes’. Why not? Because this was Angola, and that land could still be covered in mines.

No wonder, then, that in the early 2000s almost a third of Angolan children died before they were five, and overall life expectancy was less than 40. Not how the world was meant to be.

To the north of Angola is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, another of the world’s poorest nations with many lives lost due to disease, malnutrition and armed combat. I flew into villages in clearings deep in the Congo jungle and along the Congo River. (See also blog ‘We do what we can’, February 27, 2021)

I visited a school in a village, hundreds of miles from any large settlement. At most there were two or three classrooms. Teachers were doing their best for the children. But they had no books and no teaching aids. Just a board and chalk. The pupils sat on planks of wood set on wooden stakes. The desks were the same construction, just with a wider plank. What you wouldn’t realise from my photo is that several seats and desks were broken and the children were holding the planks in place while I took the picture. No school my children attended was like that.

In a settlement by the Congo River I was shown around a hospital. The operating theatre was very basic. The state of the operating table wouldn’t matter to an unconscious patient. But what mattered for the surgeon was that the operating light hadn’t worked for two years and couldn’t be repaired. I asked how they operated with no light. ‘We pull the table near a window and do our best by daylight.’ No operating theatre where I was treated was like that.

I saw an incubator where a tiny, premature baby lay. The incubator looked old, but had to be useful. It wasn’t really. The incubator didn’t work, and couldn’t be repaired. It was only a convenient small place to lay a premature baby. One of my children had jaundice when born. The incubator in which she was put wasn’t like that.

In another Congo hospital, I met a young boy who was seriously malnourished. His grandmother had walked with him through the jungle for three days to get help. No-one knew where his parents were; most likely they’d died. ‘Can you help him?’ I asked a doctor. He shook his head slowly. It was too late to save the boy. All they could do was make him comfortable. None of my children looked like that little boy or was beyond help like him.

I felt distressed taking these photos, and disturbed now just looking at them again. I also feel angry. This is not the world as it was meant to be, and not the world as it has to be.

So, who am I angry at?

At all of us who are complacent while others suffer    I include myself. Every year I give a percentage of my income to alleviate world poverty and for other causes, but I know my lifestyle is one that billions in this world will never have. That troubles me. I know that personal giving by any of us can’t solve world poverty. We could never give enough, and aid alone won’t resolve the complex reasons behind the poverty of many countries. But is it not true that our focus is on ever more comfortable lives for ourselves? How can that be right? I will keep urging myself and others to give careful thought about how we live and how much we spend on ourselves, compared to how much we give so others can at least eat. The measure of caring isn’t pity but what we do for those in need. Mahatma Gandhi said: “Live simply so that others may simply live.” Wise words.

At my own government    Let me explain my point with a little imagination. In your town, six families have lost their main income earner. One parent in each family now holds them together, but they need help. You’re generous, and you promise to support them until the children are older. But a storm blows your roof away. You have money to pay for the roof repair, but the cost has eaten into your capital. You want to replenish your reserves fast, and you do that by cutting the amount of support you give to the already impoverished families. Now they don’t have enough to eat and they can’t pay their bills, but you can rebuild your funds quickly. Their needs were sacrificed for your benefit.

The analogy isn’t perfect (no analogy is) but it’s uncomfortably similar to how the UK government has responded to the financial cost of the Covid-19 virus by cutting the overseas aid budget. The nation was giving 0.7% of national income in aid, but that has now been reduced to 0.5% – a drop of about four million pounds. The government says that because the pandemic damaged the economy, the aid reduction will help restore public finances. So, let’s be clear what that means. We spent more than usual on health care and support for those out of work – which was right to do – and now we’ll restore our national wealth by taking money away from the poorest people in the world. Yes, we’re really doing that. Of course the UK should put its finances in order, but: a) if you look at the big picture, the UK is still among the very wealthy nations of the world; b) it’s hard to see any morality in restoring a strong financial position by making the poor poorer.

At other governments    Poverty has many causes. Historically, much wealth was taken from nations by colonial masters whose goal was to enrich the mother land. Even now, unfair contracts continue to blight some nations as other countries and large corporations want control of their minerals.

But poverty has plenty other causes too: discrimination against ethnic groups; incompetent and unstable governments; wars that kill civilians, devastate crops, and create millions of refugees; poor infrastructure and systems for trade; inadequate education, especially of girls; low provision of healthcare, clean water, safe working environments.

But, unquestionably, corruption is a major cause. In 2020 India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, said ‘dynastic corruption’ was now a major challenge for the country. Where corruption persisted from one generation to the next, the country was hollowed out like the damage of a termite. It’s not just India where corruption is rife. In many places paying a bribe is just a cost of business, or how you get a favourable judgment in court. I’ve seen that most blatantly in Asia and Africa, but I’m not foolish enough to think corruption doesn’t happen in western countries too. Who is it that never benefits when there’s corruption? The poor. Their land is taken, and the affluent thief can pay off the police or judge while the poor farmer has no resources to regain the land. Corruption is a deep-rooted evil across much of the world.

I probably sound angry throughout this blog. I am. This is not how the world was meant to be or needs to be. Nothing described here has to be this way.

If my photographs or anything I’ve written is disturbing, I hope the evidence of desperate poverty moves all of us to make this world better. You may have seen the slogan ‘Keep calm and carry on’. Often that’s good advice. But if our reaction to desperate need in the world is that we do nothing and just ‘carry on’, then literally billions of our fellow human beings will suffer. That cannot be right. That’s not how the world was meant to be.

What will you do today?

In October 1996 I visited Stuart Cook, a Baptist minister in Leicester. He gave me a gift of a book he’d edited called In Good Company. It’s a collection of readings from Christian history, along with appropriate Bible verses, one for each day of the year. Sadly Stuart died soon after, but I’m grateful for his ministry and his wonderful collection of valuable readings. I want to share one here.

On June 12th, 1806, in the cool of a late Indian evening, William Carey* sat down to write a letter. In it he described what he’d done that day.  Here’s my summary of his letter.

Carey got up at 5.45 a.m., read a chapter of the Hebrew Bible, prayed until 7.00, and then joined family prayer with servants in Bengali. While tea was being made, he read a little in Persian with help from a language teacher, and then read the Bible in Hindustani. All this before breakfast.

As soon as breakfast was done, Carey began translating an ancient Sanskrit text, helped by a pundit (a knowledgeable teacher). That took until 10.00 after which he spent more than three hours on college duties. [He had been made Professor of Bengali at Fort William College.] When he got home he studied a proof-sheet of the Bengali translation of the book of Jeremiah. That took until dinner time.

After dinner, with the help of another pundit, Carey worked until 6.00 translating most of Matthew chapter 8 into Sanskrit. Then he met with a Telinga pundit to learn that language. At 7.00 he organised ideas he’d previously noted down into a sermon, which he preached at 7.30. At the end of the church service he received a sizeable gift from one of the attendees towards a new place of worship. It was 9.00 before the service was over and congregation gone. Then Carey began translating Ezekiel chapter 11 into Bengali, which took until almost 11.00.

At 11.00 Carey began writing the letter describing his day.

Carey’s letter fascinates me. By anyone’s standards, he had a busy day! It could be untypical, but I suspect it wasn’t, because everything that day was routine. There were no emergencies, no surprise callers, no unexpected tasks. All he did was ongoing work. This was how Carey lived his life.

I’m glad I don’t live my life like that, though there have been some crazily hectic times. One weekend, I spoke at a residential conference, and gave five addresses on the same day. In our office building, I climbed the stairs to the top floor to join others in a conference room, glanced at my watch, saw it was 10.30, and realised I was heading for my fifth meeting of the morning. That day could have been the nearest I’ve come to matching Carey’s pace of work, except my afternoon was quieter, and I didn’t start every day with back to back meetings. My life was busy, but not Carey-busy.

Carey’s crazily busy day is an example and a warning.

First, Carey’s example. I know a lot about Carey from his own writings and those of his contemporaries. Beyond question, he was a man of deep commitment – first his commitment to God, and second to the people he served in India.

Those two things are inextricably linked, because the second would never have happened without the first. Carey had a burning certainty that God’s plan for his life was to leave England and go east to India. He’d researched and written a remarkable book called An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens (which was probably a great book title in 1792; likely not so great today). Carey’s book made the case for taking the gospel to the world, surveyed population numbers and religious facts, and argued for the formation of a missionary society.

The missionary society came into being later that year, and Carey ensured it sent him and his family to India. It was no small decision. His wife, Dorothy, was very resistant. She’d never seen the sea, and certainly didn’t want to cross it to a far-off land. Carey would have gone on his own, but just in time Dorothy agreed to accompany him providing her sister could come too. All of them knew that disease killed many who went to India and, in fact, their son Peter soon died of dysentery. Not long after, Dorothy’s mental health declined severely, and she died in 1807.

But on Carey went. Why? He was driven to spread the Christian message and to serve people in need.

If he’d stayed in England his life would not have been comfortable by 21st century standards, but relatively safe and secure. But he couldn’t stay. It wasn’t where he believed he was meant to be. That place was India, and he could not be anywhere else.

I’d question some of the decisions Carey made. But I can’t question his extraordinary commitment. The odd thing is that today we think such commitment is ‘extraordinary’. A person willing to give up everything they have, and accept hardship and sacrifice, is considered an extremist.

But are they? Or have we normalised the abnormal? Do we equate deep commitment to a cause with unacceptable radicalism? And think that we should be wary of people like that? Perhaps change-makers like Martin Luther, William Wilberforce, Florence Nightingale, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr, Mother Teresa have always been considered too zealous. They weren’t easy to be around. Too much agitation for change.

But would the world have been better if they’d been ‘normal’, kept their mouths shut, and just did what ordinary people do? The truth is that we needed their agitation. We needed their commitment. We needed a Carey. And his example has been a challenge to every generation since.

Second, a warning. I’m moved by the sacrifices Carey made to meet need he saw every day. But I’m concerned in case we think days packed with activity from early morning to late at night are virtuous, and less hectic days are not.

With colleagues and trustees, I was interviewing candidates for a director-level post in our organisation. We asked one of the prospects about his commitment to work. Part of his answer was, ‘When the pressure’s on, I’m willing to work until midnight.’ I looked to my colleague David, and each of us silently mouthed, ‘Just until midnight…?’ And we laughed quietly, because both of us had, at times, worked well past that hour.

On occasions that’s fine. What’s not fine is when it’s all the time.

Commitment must be controlled, and commitment must be appropriate to the cause. I’ll explain both of those.

Two categories of people fail to control commitment to their work. One group can never leave anything undone. Their work controls their time. Some I’ve known would not turn up to their child’s school concert if they hadn’t got through everything work-related first. (Or they’d go back to the office after the concert.) The other group find fulfilment by being busy. I referred to a conference address by Tom Houston in the earlier blog ‘Dream on’. In one part of that address, Houston said ministers were often criticised, leading to low self-esteem. But what propped up their self-worth was a packed diary. They felt better when their personal calendar was full of appointments, because that proved they were needed. Finding comfort in excessive demands on their time is not exclusive to ministers. A good commitment goes bad if not controlled.

Commitment must also be appropriate to the cause. I’ve been close to people who ran their own businesses, or held senior positions in multi-national corporations, or others in less lofty yet important roles. Many were ‘driven’ individuals, pushing and pushing to grow the business or win the next promotion. Work is honourable, and deserves our best. But, for some, the work becomes their master and unhelpfully and unhealthily controls their lives. That causes marriage and family problems, with spouses and children left in no doubt they’re less important than the career. Health also suffers. They overeat to combat their stress, perhaps developing diabetes or ulcers or heart problems. Many sink into depression, and life gradually seems pointless. What is all this for? Often what’s happening is that they’re sacrificing for the greater profit of an already wealthy company. Commitment to that cause can’t be compared to the commitment of a William Carey to change lives in India. Their cause doesn’t justify the cost to themselves or their families.

There isn’t a single day when we shouldn’t be giving our best. There’s plenty to be done, including by the retired who usually wonder how they ever had time for employment. I’m all for commitment. Carey is a great example, and we need many more sold-out for what they believe should be changed in this world. But there’s also a need for caution. Work is not our god, and outside of careers there are people and purposes that matter greatly.

‘Expect great things. Attempt great things,’ said Carey.** Yes, with all our hearts, we should. So, what will you do today?

*William Carey’s vision and efforts led to the founding of the Baptist Missionary Society (now BMS World Mission) in 1792, the first mission society of its kind. In 1793 he left for missionary work in India, spending the rest of his life there. Carey is regarded as the father of modern missions. He died in 1834, aged 72. From 1996-2008 I was General Director of the society Carey founded.

**Apparently these were the original words spoken by Carey, though he’d also have agreed with the more well-known version ‘Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.’