My November Column – The First Commandment – Full Text

This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on the 1st December 2017.

The First Commandment

Last month I set myself the task of looking at the Ten Commandments as a guide to human happiness. This is harder than I had imagined. How do we know that we are happy? We find it easy to know when we are unhappy but I don’t go about thinking how happy I am. I think it is when we are unhappy that we can see how happy we had been before.

Now the Commandments were given to Moses when the Israelites were so unhappy in their wanderings in the desert that they began to reject God. They were so unhappy that they began to pine for the good old days when they were slaves being mistreated by the Egyptians. They had been told that God would lead them to a new land where they would have all the good things they wanted. Now they couldn’t see any sign of this Promised Land and they felt that God had failed to provide what He had promised.

Does this sound familiar? Sometimes I hear people complain that they have prayed to God for a solution to a problem and they have seen no answer. Why doesn’t God give us what we ask for? In the first commandment God sets out to clarify the nature of our relationship. He says, “I am the Lord thy God: thou shalt not have strange Gods before Me.” You might notice I’m using the old fashioned ‘thou’ rather than the more familiar ‘you’. That was deliberate. Thou is a singular form. God is making it plain He is talking to me, not just the whole group; this is means me. He is telling me that he is the one who will decide what to do and when to do it. I don’t call the shots.

If we look at where we get this commandment from we go back to the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy we find,

“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

That’s a much stronger version than our modern instruction. If we are going to get along with God we are going to have to understand the true nature of the relationship. We didn’t elect God and we are in no position to dismiss Him. God is making it plain that if we do then we will not prosper.

God is also pointing out the folly of worshiping some other ‘gods’. His list would seem to prohibit worship of animals but that is not really the whole story. We can understand the folly of worshiping an animal. Our understanding of the nature of living things precludes the possibility of them having any special powers. Praying to a horse will get you nowhere. Bookmakers understand this and make lots of money from it.

We may be at risk of worshiping other ‘gods’ though. Our attitudes to God today might betray some similarity with those of the Israelites wandering in the desert. We now seem to have a tendency to blame God for things. I think the New Testament may have given rise to this. We are told in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus could command a storm to stop.

“They woke him and said to him, ‘Master, do you not care? We are going down! And he woke up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Quiet now! Be calm!’ and the wind dropped and all was calm again.”

Mark 4:39, 40

Now some of us think we can call on God to sort out anything that threatens us. They question where was God when the earthquake struck? Why was my child allowed to die? They even blame God for causing disasters as a punishment for our bad behaviour. Do we really believe that God sent AIDS to punish the wicked?

In the first commandment God tells the Israelites that He decided to lead them out of Egypt. It was not their idea. God intercedes in human events when He decides to. It is not our decision. The Israelites could only see the desert that surrounded them. God has a much wider vision and he is not bounded by time. Our big mistake is that we think we can understand God. I can’t really understand what God is never mind understand His plans.

God knows we can’t understand what he is so he is making it simple for us. God is in charge. He is not Santa Clause, bringing us the things we ask for. God gives us what we need for our place in his plan. That’s why He doesn’t let me win the Euromillions; it’s not what I need to follow His plan. I can’t really see that it would do me any harm but just as God led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, I have to remember that he is leading me out of the bondage of sin. My vision is just as restricted as that of the Israelites so I have to trust that God can see where he is leading and trust to His mercy.

In western society we seem to have decided that God has it wrong on so many issues. We have decided that sanctity of life is inconvenient. God’s idea of all human beings being of equal value does not fit with our modern world. We don’t see life as a gift from God but something we control. In a sense we could be accused of going beyond the worship of false gods. We could be accused of thinking of ourselves as being God. We can decide when life begins and ends. We can now decide whether we are male or female, or something else.

Of course our transition into gods is incomplete. We are still limited in our length of life. Research is proceeding to ‘switch off’ the gene that tells our bodies to stop repairing itself so that we can live for hundreds of years if not forever. This idea of living forever has great support from some very wealthy people. If you have more money than you can spend in a lifetime immortality is very attractive. Who knows what the State Pension age will be if that comes about.

History shows us that human beings who think they are God have never brought us any good. I might be of being old fashioned but I’ll stick with the belief that there is only one God. That job is taken and they are not recruiting anyone else.

As God says in the First Commandment, those who reject Him will suffer and those who love Him will be loved in return. I know whose side I’m on.

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My June Column – Who’s Standing on Your Shoulder?

The recent General Election produced some surprising results. The government hoped for a large increase in its majority but expectations were not met and the majority was lost. How could this happen? What caused the voters to cast their votes in the way they did?

I was one of those who reasoned that I should cast my vote for one party but decided in the end to stick with my normal voting pattern. What influenced me to make that decision? I would like to think that I thought it through and came to a logical decision but I suspect that my eventual vote was the result of emotion. I wasn’t able to desert the party I had always supported.

This has made me think about what influences our behaviour. Whether we are truly logical beings or respond to our feelings we experience influences from everything around us. I started to think about the possible influences on my behaviour. Which of the many influences is steering my thoughts?

An obvious influence on me is my family and upbringing. As a child I absorbed values and opinions from parents and relatives. These must be imprinted on my brain, even if I have moved on, determined to think for myself. That’s not to say that I’ve been programmed to copy my parent’s behaviour. Perhaps I’ve been moved to rebel against their views and act in a completely different way. Whether I’m moved to copy or oppose their thinking I’m still influenced, one way or the other.

Television has been accused of being a bad influence on children. Other commentators would disagree and point out how our views on third world poverty have been influenced by images of starving children broadcast on our screens. I think there is little doubt that television is an influence on our attitudes. It has been suggested that because the television set is in our home we are more susceptible to its influence that we would be to an outside source. Television is accepted as a trusted family member.

I don’t know how much I’m influenced by television since I find so much of it unwatchable but I’m sure there are subtle influences in the things I do watch. Recognising the influences and thinking about the attitudes they convey is a first step to maintaining some truly independent thought. Radio might be a more insidious influence. It tends to be on in the background while driving or working in the kitchen.

I’m not sure how much we are influenced by music on the radio. Some have described rock and roll as the music of the Devil and blamed the rebellious behaviour of teenagers on its influence. That may or not be true but I don’t find it a problem on Classic FM. Talk radio is a different beast. Opinions are filtered out to us – sometimes dressed up as news. Experts can make reasonable sounding cases for all sorts of nonsense but we may be more likely to accept it if we hear it on radio than if we hear it in the pub.

Celebrities seem to be the great purveyors of opinion today. So important are they that charities and political parties often use them to put over their message. Why should celebrities be influential? This has always been a puzzle to me. Apparently celebrities should be listened to because they are famous. Some are actors or people in the media. Because they are in the public eye their opinions are valued. Some celebrities seem to be famous for being famous. They don’t seem to actually do anything. That’s something I just fail to understand.

Newspapers and books are thought to be influential. The recent election results seem to contradict the idea of newspapers being crucial to election success. Perhaps they have overdone it. Surely you can get to a point where the public can recognise nonsense when the lies are so blatant? Newspapers are transient. We read them today and they go in the recycling bin (did you notice my green credentials there?). Books, on the other hand, hang around. I was once asked what book had influenced me most. I found that one very difficult to answer. I think everything you read has an influence on you, even the back of the cornflake packet.

Having given that question more thought I would have come to the conclusion that the Bible must be the book that has influenced, not just me, but the western world. You might never have opened a Bible but still have experienced the influence of its contents. Over the centuries the teaching contained in that book has produced societies that increasingly hold ordinary people to be valuable. Much of western law is Bible based although recent developments in abortion and euthanasia seem to have moved against that trend.

Every time we go to Mass we hear the word of God proclaimed in the Bible. The great religious feasts of Christmas and Easter that mark out our year are straight from the Bible. How many blockbuster films can you remember that are straight off the pages of the Bible? The great promise of the Bible that the chosen one will come as our saviour has permeated through literature and still forms the basis of Hollywood’s output.

Think of the great movie heroes, Superman, James Bond, John McClean in Diehard. Each is the one person come to save us. Superman is sent by his father to Earth. He, the son, has supernatural powers and uses them to save mankind. The heroes all suffer for us. James bond even dies and comes back again in ‘You Only Live Twice’. They all come to us from somewhere else. The theme of the lone hero who comes, suffers and eventually overcomes to save us permeates much of literature.

Even those who have never heard of Jesus look to a hero to lead and rescue us. Even in politics we look to a leader to be our hero and save us. Has Jeremy Corbyn come from nowhere, suffered and eventually overcome? Alas I feel that searching for our hero in politics is bound to lead to disappointment. I must own up to one of my film influences. Tom and Jerry cartoons always carry a moral message. How often have I seen Tom in a moral dilemma with a tiny angel on one shoulder and a tiny devil on the other? Each whispers advice to Tom. Tom, to the Devil’s delight, always flicks off the angel and goes the way of the other fellow.

Do I experience the influence of these spiritual advisors in my life? Is there an angel, a guardian angel whispering in my ear at times of moral doubt? Is there a devil whispering in my other ear; not urging me to be bad but helping me to see the wrong thing as somehow good? How good am I at rejecting this influence? Was it Oscar Wilde who said “I can resist anything but temptation”?

I need to face up to the fact that I am not totally in control of my thoughts and opinions. I am bombarded daily by influences I am not aware of. If I want to live as a Christian, following Christ’s teaching then I must be open to the whispering of that wee guardian angel on my shoulder and see the other fellow for what he is.

Who Do You Think You Are? – My May Column

Who do you think you are? Are you the person you used to be? Do you recognise the person staring back at you in the mirror or have you never noticed the changes?

I’ve taken a look at myself this month to try to work out whether i’ve improved with age or just aged. You can read my thoughts in this weeks’ Scottish Catholic Observer. Get your copy this weekend but remember that the full text will be here next week (It’s not the same without the pictures though).

Lent’s Over – My Column – Full Text

This was published in The Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 28th April 2017

Lent is over and we are now in Easter. I’ve had my glass of red wine and chocolate is now allowed in the house again. Getting to the end of Lent was a great feeling but was it all worth it? I thought I should review my Lenten efforts, just to see if I have achieved what I’d hoped for. Now I’m asking myself what I’ve done for Lent. Was it enough? Have I changed myself enough to make me think that it was worth it? I’m not sure about that and it forces me to have a look at who I am.

That makes me think of the television programme “Who do you think you are?” The television programme looks back at who your grandparents, great grandparents etc. were and what they achieved. I’m just going to look at myself.

I started school in the early fifties when we were still in rationing. The map of the world on the classroom wall was coloured with large swathes of red, the British Empire. We controlled a large part of the world and I was part of the ‘we’.  I was British.

I was a Catholic, part of the one true Church. I was definitely on God’s side and would eventually be welcomed into Heaven. That couldn’t be said for a large part of the world’s population. I was also Scottish, a member of the nationality that gave the world steam power, telephones and television (though I didn’t have one) as well as lots of other inventions. To crown it all I was of Irish descent. The blood in my veins was that of saints and scholars, bards and warlords. This was a powerful identity, not bad for a wee boy in short trousers.

Of course, in reality I was not really able to claim credit for any of this; much of which was entirely illusional. All of those red patches on the map have managed to break free and look after themselves. Much of the Scottish and Irish images have been tarnished when we look closer at them.

If I’m going to measure the success or otherwise of my Lenten efforts I need to look at myself now and see how I measure up. What standard can I use to measure myself against? Well, the only possible one is Jesus. My Lenten efforts were really about trying to become more like Him. The end of Lent is Easter and the Resurrection. Am I risen at Easter with a new life?

Now my problem is – just how can I compare myself to Christ? Jesus is the Son of God and has divine powers. I’m merely human, how can I measure up to Jesus? I suppose I can only aspire to copy His ways and see how well I compare to the way He lived on Earth.

One striking thing about Jesus was the way he saw things. He didn’t see people as others saw them. People saw criminals and sinners as people to be avoided or even punished. They thought of lepers and cripples, the blind and the deaf as sinners being punished. Jesus didn’t see it that way. He knew that the afflicted people were not sinners being punished but used their visible ailments to give a message about sinners. He showed that he could cure physical ailments as proof that he could, and would forgive sins.

Jesus saw the laws differently from the Jewish authorities. He was accused of breaking the law by curing people on the Sabbath. Who was he to defy the laws? Jesus’ message was that the laws are there to help us, not to get in our way.

How do I measure up against Jesus? How do I see criminals and sinners? I admit that I think criminals should be punished in order to protect the innocent. Surely that’s not the end of the story. Every criminal is someone who needs to be helped to change their ways. Prisons can only do so much to rehabilitate criminals. As the prison chaplain at HMP Shotts told me, many long term prisoners are released into a world that has changed drastically since they were locked up. They come out to a home that may no longer exist and find nobody they recognise. How much has your town changed in the last twenty years? How welcoming are we to those who have ‘paid their debt to society?’

I must stop seeing criminals and sinners and start to see people who may need sympathy and help. I need to see laws and rules as guides to help me live a good life, not barriers that can cut people off from me.

I need to begin to think like Christ. Jesus was sent here on a mission and that was what he thought about. He wasn’t thinking about building up a good carpentry business and becoming wealthy. He was thinking about our salvation; saving us from sin and eventual separation from God.

We have been sent here on a mission too. We need to think about that mission above all. Now I’m not saying that we should forget about the questions of the day, forget about voting, give up our jobs and wander into the wilderness like John the Baptist. We need to deal with the problems of our world, work, vote and raise our families. However, we must be able to look beyond all that. We need to raise our sights to our future. We will not be here forever. This is not our home. There is no point in building up bank accounts with millions we can never spend. We are her to bring souls to Jesus. Let’s get on with it.

That means we need to act like Jesus. I don’t think I’ll be working miracles, curing the sick, turning water into wine (red wine, preferably) and raising people from the dead. I do need to be open to all people. I need to recognise that I’m no better than the sinners of this world; I’m really a sinner too. I must not pretend that because their sin is obvious and well known my secret sins are ok.

I need to act like Jesus and treat good and bad alike. Above all I need to be open and honest about myself and others. The school where I taught had a motto which translated as “Speak out for justice.” Do I speak out for justice for the poor, the sick and the disabled? If I did would anybody listen?

When do I get the opportunity to have my voice heard? Well there is about to be just such an opportunity. A General Election has been called and I will have a voice through my ballot paper. This is my opportunity to see, think and act like Jesus. I need to look at what’s being offered, looking, like Jesus, beyond the rhetoric to find the truth about what the politicians actually do.

I need to think about how my vote can help bring about justice for the poor and those in need. I must examine the consequences of my vote. What will the result be and who will benefit?

I then need to act like Jesus and use my vote for the greater good, not for my own benefit alone. There is no easy answer to all of this but if we follow Jesus’ example we will not be looking for a selfish outcome but keep the needs of other in our minds.

To paraphrase Saint Pio, Pray, Hope and Vote.

My March Column – Full Text

It’s Lent again. Is it just me or was it only a couple of months since the last Lent? I must admit I don’t look forward to Lent. Lent is a time of giving up things and the theme is penance. On Ash Wednesday we were invited to face up to the fact that we are dust and are going to return to dust. Now that’s not a happy thought.

The first problem I face is deciding what to give up. I give up red wine, all alcohol actually but I only have a glass of wine (it’s supposed to be good for the heart.) My wife gives up sweets and cakes, so those are out as well since they are not brought into the house. The whole giving up business can create its own problems. I read that Theresa May, our Prime Minister has given up crisps. She got a really bad press for that; all too easy the critics say. Michael Gove went further in an article in The Times. He pointed out that this was a Catholic tradition and it showed that Mrs. May was the first Catholic Prime Minister of the U.K.

He wasn’t saying this was good. He was arguing that Brexit was essentially a Protestant thing and Mrs. May should not be trusted to go through with it. Mrs. May is actually an Anglican but obviously some think she seems a bit dodgy. So it seems that giving up something up for Lent leaves us open to anti-Catholic rhetoric, even if we are not a Catholic.

Now there’s a problem right away. There’s a great temptation to compete with one another on who does the most difficult giving up. I wonder if Theresa May’s critics have given up anything? I must admit I admire her for going public about Lent. I suppose she was asked and had to think of something quickly but it’s unusual for any politician to admit to any Christian action these days. Politicians have been ridiculed for expressing their belief in God.

Carol Monaghan, M.P. for Glasgow North West turned up to her select committee meeting on Ash Wednesday with her ashes on her forehead. Other members could not believe she wanted to appear with this symbol as the meeting was being broadcast on television. Perhaps they found the idea of publicly marking oneself as a sinner, for that’s what we are doing, was a step too far.

What if I had a class of wine tonight, have I failed Lent? Pope Francis would tell me that I have the wrong idea of Lent. Lent is a time of penance; but penance with a purpose. On Ash Wednesday the Pope was comparing the atmosphere of selfishness and downright lies in our society with the atmospheric pollution in our cities. The E.U. has threatened to fine us for exceeding air pollution levels, levels which cause premature deaths. We tend not to notice the pollution as we are breathing it every day. Similarly we do not notice the poisonous atmosphere of sin we inhabit because it’s always there.

Pope Francis tells us that Lent is a time when we can cut out this spiritual pollution and learn to breathe again. My giving up red wine is an exercise for my spiritual health, not a test. If I can give up my indulgence and put the money I would spend on that to some good cause then I’m fulfilling the requirements of penance and almsgiving all in one go; a two for one offer as Tesco might put it. There are plenty of opportunities to use the money wisely; SCIAF’s Wee Blue Box is sitting on our table.

I will try to adopt a more positive approach to this Lent. If I take a long hard look at myself and list all my failings I’m sure I will end up with a massive to do list. I don’t think I’ll be able to sort out all of those faults in six weeks. I think I’ll need to do a wee bit at a time. Where should I start?

The Gospel reading this morning was very short and to the point.

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge, and you will not be judged yourselves; do not condemn and you will not be condemned yourselves; grant pardon and you will be pardoned. Give, and there will be gifts for you; a full measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be poured into your lap; because the amount you measure out is the amount you will be given back.’

Luke 6:36 – 38

There you have it do not judge and do not condemn. Well, that lets me out then. Oh yes? Can I be sure that I’m not guilty of judging and, indeed, condemning others? Perhaps I am guilty of judging others when I get annoyed by something they do or say. Do I condemn others? Do I write them off as not worth bothering about?  Maybe I need to take that close look at my behaviour.

While picking out all my faults I should keep in mind where I’m going with all this. I am going, we are all going towards Easter. Easter is the great celebration of the Church. We are celebrating our salvation. We are celebrating that turning point in history when Jesus, by his suffering and dying on the cross, made it possible for us to attain Heaven.

Now if I am going to be judged in the way I judge other people then I’d better start creating a sympathetic judgement for myself. I have to start to be more understanding of all those people who annoy me. There’s a Lenten task that puts abstaining from red wine into the shade.  Perhaps I need to try to put myself in their shoes as they say. If I could see things from their perspective then perhaps I would not be so grumpy.

Well, that’s made up my mind. I’m going to make a greater effort in what’s left of Lent to spring clean myself. I’ll try to move my focus away from the trivial things of this world and set my sights on the next one. Instead of taking Donald Trump’s tweets seriously (that way leads to insanity) I’ll try to take the Holy Father’s words more seriously. When he talks of being tolerant of people in unorthodox marriages and reaching out to strangers I’ll do my best to ‘get with the programme’.

It’s worth remembering at this time that Jesus went through all his suffering and dying to save people who were not Catholics, not particularly good and some were downright bad. That is still the mission of the Church. We are here to bring sinners (including me) to Christ and through Christ to Heaven. Now when it comes to the final judgement and I have to account for myself, what am I to say in mitigation for my sins? I think that helping to bring a sinner to Jesus will go down much better than I always put money in the plate and I never kept bad company.