These are reflections on the theme of Humility, suggested by A Ticket to Port Shee.
To begin with, A Ticket to Port Shee is a fantasy. There would be no point in looking at a map for the station and train routes described in it. Yet, it is clearly Highland-related and it tries sincerely to capture truths of the heart, and our inmost need for love.
That includes the humble need all human beings have for forgiveness, even if we often pretend we don’t. As a Christian minister (though, like all of us, an ordinary, struggling sinner), I have seen this too often in my life and experience to be able to deny it. The good news is that this forgiveness is held out to us by the compassionate God above, who, the Bible says, notes even the fall of a tiny sparrow.
Sparrows, as Psalm 84 tells us, were the chattering, harmless squatters of the Temple courts: “Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young— a place near your altar, LORD Almighty, my King and my God.” (Psalm 84, v. 3)
I have tried to capture the nuances behind the original language in the Doric, thus:
“Fit’s mair, the hoppin spurdie’s fand
A hoosie far ti rest,
The swift hes gotten for hersel
An for her bairns, a nest
Near-hand Yer altars, far her bairns
hatch free, far debt wis owed,
O Ye Almichty Lord o Hosts
Fa are ma King, ma God.”
(Psaulm eichty-fower, verse thrie)
Many grand, exclusive affairs went on behind the Temple’s closed doors and high walls, which even kept lesser human beings out, but those wee sparrows flew about unhindered and hardly noticed. I see most of us as being like those sparrows – sidelined, humble lives, but nevertheless valued by God, our Father.
So, what is the Bible saying about us being humble? Only that it is what God best responds to in us. This is said in the Psalms (the Bible’s songbook), the Old Testament Prophets and the New Testament, including the Gospels, and we see this especially in the Life of Jesus.
Here are other Bible quotes on the subject. We can catch their drift easily enough:
“The LORD sustains the humble but casts the wicked to the ground.” (Psalm 147, v. 6.)
“This is what the high and exalted One says, He who lives forever whose name is holy: ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and revive the heart of the contrite.'” (Isaiah ch. 57, v. 15.)
“All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favour to the humble.” (1st Letter of Peter, ch. 5, v. 5.)
Mary’s Song of Praise: The Magnificat.
“And Mary said: ‘My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant… He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.'” (Gospel of Luke, ch. 1, v. 46-48, 52.)
Thinking back to my working-class childhood, and to my later times in the Western Isles and abroad, it is the people and their lives I want to honour, especially the understated, but deeply-felt, character of many decent souls, whom the strident want to trample on. The Human Race is endlessly fascinating ; yet, like much of Nature itself, a lot of it goes unregarded. The Scots and other peoples that I’ve met, east and west in Scotland and east and west in the world, were often fascinating and admirable, yet easily ignored, while lesser spirits with bigger egos and voices lorded it over them in entitlement. It’s a sad fact that some selfish people get their security by making others feel worthless. It is a form of abuse often practised towards children, spouses, women, the vulnerable, employees and the minority groups without power. Tragically, this even happens in churches, because some human beings like to re-create even religious organisations in their own image, so that their religious groups – rather than serving their original purpose – follow invented agendas of leaders who manipulate formerly-understood truths into plausible half-truths and lies that further their self-interest. The changes make beliefs more easily managed by men, although I do not think the culprits are always aware of their subtle distortions.
At times, forms of Christianity seem unrecognisable in relation to their professed Lord.
For this reason, there are periodic rebellions, as believers try to fight their way back to find the foundations of their faith and a way to express them that seems more faithful. The Reformation, the Charismatic Movement and others, for all their human faults, expressed this desire to cut back overgrown irrelevancies and get back to deeper roots.
No wonder many can relate to the psalms and other parts of the Bible which tell us that the Lord is close to the humble! My favourite artistic picture from memory (and how I wish I had kept it!) is of a woman sitting alone at the back of a church, where everyone else is at the front with the minister. She is apparently distanced from the grace of God. Yet she is not alone. One man sits beside her, also looking towards the front and also left behind like as an outcast. It is Jesus.
The fact that God’s values humility is easily seen in that, when He became a human being, amongst the Jewish people, whom He had set apart for Himself, He came neither as an earthly prince, nor a powerful priest, nor a rich politician, but a humble carpenter and probably a house-builder in a village no bigger in area than Pittodrie Stadium, with about thirty houses in it, although He inevitably travelled about. The One who made the Universe built homes, ploughs and yokes. He uses these as illustrations in His preaching and like these ordinary things of life, he was taken for granted, despised and abused:
“He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.
Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John ch. 1, v. 10-14)
Jesus’ own life is an illustration of His humility and He suffered from bullying, which, in His case, involved entitled humans, ignorant of God’s heart, pushing themselves forward so far as to be willing to trample on God Himself. All of those men eventually died and found themselves, as we will, face to face with the holy beauty of the One they resisted. I thank God for every person, who, finding this out, was able to say sorry to Jesus, like the Thief on the Cross beside Jesus. For all his sins, this hopeless man found total forgiveness.
“When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left.
Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.” The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”
There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself – and us!”
But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
(Luke ch. 23, verses 33-43)
I love that story and I have seen it give glorious hope to a dying man, a rough diamond, at the end of life. Jesus is always there, while we live, calling to us to turn to Him, to say we’re sorry – and be instantly forgiven and received as His friend and brother or sister.
Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, inhabited by seven-fold evil entities (Mark ch. 16, v. 9 and Luke ch. 8, v. 2). The demons were cast out of her by Jesus, and she found, with Him, not only complete forgiveness and a new life but the privilege of being the first of His followers to see Him after He rose from the dead. No matter how far you may feel you have fallen, no matter what you have done, or whom you let down – even Him – Jesus Christ will saves you by His sacrifice for your sins on the Cross and by His conquering of Death and of the fear of Death in His Resurrection when you turn to Him and ask. His Love overcomes everything. He will forgive you utterly. He lives and will always live to love you in that Eternity of Joy that lies beyond Death for all who repent and trust in Him, great and small. We often say of someone that they are in a better place. That better place has a gate-way called Jesus. When we come, sorry but sincere, to Him, it will open.
A great hymn says:
“The vilest offender who truly believes
That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.”
That pardon will never ever be revoked. You, me, Mary Magdalene, the unnamed thief on the Cross and all who turn to Jesus will be saved for an Eternity of Joy with Him.
As a former teacher and retired minister who has been privileged to move around the world a wee bit and also spend time in the Gaelic-speaking West, I am fascinated by the variety of people. In Scotland, too, with its distinctive blend of characters, I love the way in which the precious Celtic and Saxon parts of our heritage merit their own attention, as well as being basically united overall. This is thanks, we are told, to the imagination of Sir Walter Scott who practically re-invented a healed, united Scotland within the context of the Union. We need to see the Christian humility implicit in that, especially today.
To my mind, we all live on the same planet, but, by a strange and wonderful fact of our inner complexity, we can also inhabit different mental universes, It is a challenge and a privilege to look beyond the surface of any person, to learn to appreciate uniqueness, to listen to the beating heart and honour another person in his or her fascinating quirkiness, (pesky?) individuality and capacity for decency and sacrifice. God is with us in all of that:
“The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1st Samuel, ch. 16, v. 7)
In my writings, both in Standard English and Doric, I want to shed some light on the little folk. They were, according to history, or legend, the ones who were the final straw in the Battle of Bannockburn, when proud invaders thought they were reinforcements for the Scots. We little folk have always had more significance than just being cannon-fodder or factory-fodder. That is one reason why I grieve for those lost generations of the First World War, which I consider the most horrific betrayal, an act of suicidal destruction of the Christian West, which revealed the barbaric contempt with which many in our ruling classes regarded us, counting us as a merely-useful, lower species.
Still today, it is the common folk who are the bedrock of our country, and often its most reliable and decent resource, who swing into action in a crisis, working together for the common good. It has always seemed significant to me that the fund set up as a result of the gratitude of King Robert the Bruce, is called The Common Good Fund. That sense of public benevolence has always seemed to me to be peculiarly and wonderfully Scottish.
If I can celebrate the life of ordinary people I have met, unsung heroes and heroines of the world, in stories, poems (and, so far, in at least one play) I will count the exercise worthwhile.
Bruce Gardner, Bucksburn, 2019.