Kirk minister tells MSPs - be like an elephant not a hippo

The Rev Dr Stewart Gillan of St Michael’s Parish Church in Linlithgow.

The Rev Dr Stewart Gillan of St Michael's Parish Church in Linlithgow addressed MSPs in the Scottish Parliament this week.

He delivered Time for Reflection which heralds the start of parliamentary business.

Dr Gillan drew on his experience working in South Africa to draw attention to the Referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union on June 23.

Here is what he had to say.

I thank you, Presiding Officer, for your kind welcome and for the invitation.

It is an honour to address Parliament in this time for reflection.

I bring you greetings from St Michael's parish church in Linlithgow, that ancient and royal burgh with its storied part in the body politic of Scotland through all centuries, not least the 21st century.

Linlithgow is set to celebrate its annual riding of the marches and children's gala day next week.

We are met in this chamber at an historic juncture, with the date for the European Union referendum fast approaching.

One may say nothing, of course, of the ins and outs of the matter, but I thought that I would mention it—the elephant in the room.

They are large things, elephants in rooms. They are not meant to be indoors; they are high maintenance; and they squeeze out the available space for other, needful things.

I spent 12 years of my life in Lesotho and South Africa, from 1986 to 1998.

Those were years of historic change, from the imposition of a national state of emergency by P W Botha through the release of Nelson Mandela and his election as state President—it is so easy to rhyme it off now; it was so much more difficult then—and the presentation of the first five volumes of the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

I had five congregations in townships in and around Johannesburg.

Though the lingua franca of the struggle against apartheid was English, my parishioners were more at home in their first language, which was southern Sotho.

Often, when they spoke of their lives, they referred to Sotho stories and proverbs, some of which introduced elephants.

I thought that I would pass on two bits of what we might call elephant wisdom, with an eye on our current moment.

Elephant and hippo

My first lesson came by way of a proverb: when two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets hurt.

I heard that often in Alexandra township, where the people, though they were resilient in their defiance, were battered and bereaved, valiant and vulnerable.

Hearing the proverb today, we might think of refugees and of our desire to welcome them warmly and wisely.

It is a call to diligence regarding our care of those who are most vulnerable, even when large campaigns are being waged.

Drgillan Deputy Presiding Officer Linda Fabiani welcomes Dr Gillan to the debating chamber of the Scottish Parliament.

The second lesson features an elephant and a hippo.

Early on, I received the following guidance as a young Canadian in Africa: you must be like the elephant, and not like the hippo.

The hippo has a very large mouth and very small ears.

The elephant, on the other hand, has very large ears and a small mouth.

You must be like the elephant, and not the hippo.

You will know who you are.

Grace and wisdom

The challenge to listen well comes into its own precisely when we disagree with what we are hearing, or with the person who is saying it, or both.

There is no end of opportunity to test that elephant wisdom.

Elephants—how much better they look when they are let out of rooms.

May God grant you grace and wisdom as, together, you serve the people of Scotland.