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Five Books That Shaped My Life
by Lieutenant-Colonel Ian Barr


These challenges are always interesting, not least because one’s choices are fairly fluid depending on where we are at any given time. Sitting in the comfort of my home after three years of retirement I have a fair swath of history to review, so here are some books that I think have helped shape my life.


When I was 14 years old I fell seriously ill in a Corps Cadet house party. It was so long ago the ambulance had a bell rather than the blaring klaxon we would hear today. After a day or two my mother brought me some of my collection of Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries. Our captain came to visit daily, and when he saw the detective novels he decided these were not suitable reading for a corps cadet and he took them away. He returned the next day with General Albert Orsborn’s autobiography ‘The House of My Pilgrimage.’


Now I have to admit I was not best pleased, but I read Orsborn nevertheless.  His story was influential in my early realisation that God was calling me to be an officer. It touched me in a deep place and I just knew that I would one day be an officer. As a divisional commander, I used to visit the house he had lived in when he retired from active service, the corps officers who lived there still had some of his furniture. I often reflected on the fact that this was where Albert Orsborn wrote ‘The House of my Pilgrimage’ and here I was serving as an officer fifty years later.


A single line can sometimes change your outlook on things. As a new lieutenant in my first appointment I was interested to read in Lady Longford’s excellent biography of Queen Victoria that the Queen was well aware of the Army, but ‘thought that Salvation Army lasses were no better than they ought to be.’ So also with Salvation Army lads, I concluded!


I have never believed my own officership to be a great sacrifice, and I cannot get excited by the supposed ‘drama’ of officership. If I have served God faithfully over the years then I have done no more than I ought to do, been no better than I ought to be, and served God no better than anyone else. Obviously I never met Queen Victoria but she has kept me grounded over the years.


In terms of my theological outlook I have been greatly influenced by DM Baillie’s ‘God was in Christ’, and in particular his chapter on the Paradox of Grace. He says that inherent in every commandment or divine requirement there is a promise. He demonstrates this by reference to the ‘yet not I’ in Christian life: ‘I laboured more than they all yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me’ (1 Corinthians 15:10); ‘It is not I (you) who speak but the spirit of my father’ (Matthew 10:20) ; ‘I live, yet not I but Christ lives in me.’ (Galatians 2:20)


This ‘yet not I’ paradox works out in almost every area of Christian life and experience. Therefore in my teaching I have always maintained that the call to holiness is not a seemingly impossible command but a promise. ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’


A couple of years ago I read the Lewis trilogy by Peter May. These three connected stories are set on the Isle of Lewis and they gave me a new perspective on how my life might have been.


I was fostered by a family in Saltcoats, a little holiday town in South West Scotland, when I was 14 months old. When I was almost 40 I discovered almost by accident that I was actually one of three half-siblings and it was both exciting and nerve-wracking to meet my brother and sister for the first time. However, twenty five years later, Peter May’s trilogy was a forceful reminder of something a social worker said to me at the time of discovery: ‘You were lucky not to be sent to the Western Isles as an extra pair of hands in some croft or smallholding.’


May tells the story of a number of children ‘fostered’ by the local authorities in Scotland’s larger cities – the actual phrase used was ‘boarded out’ – to tough situations in the harsh climate, subsistence farming and working life of the Western Isles. Some suffered a miserable childhood, while many others made a good home and life for themselves in the island communities.


It was not so much that I was ‘lucky’ not to have been sent to such a situation, but rather I finished the trilogy convinced more than ever that God’s hand had been on my life since infancy and childhood. He had given me good parents, a loving family, a happy childhood, a spiritual home in The Salvation Army and a sense that my life belonged to God. I do not believe in ‘providence at the expense of others’ or even ‘divine favour in comparison with others’, but rather May’s book confirmed my sense that God’s hand was, and is, upon my life however imperfectly I have lived it.











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