Mindfulness and Spirituality – Book Review

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I recently posted up a blog about the usefulness of Mindfulness as a practise.  Some of my reflections came from this recently published book by Tim Stead.

This is a very useful and readable book on subject of Mindfulness. I especially liked his insights on God being one and God being experienced in the now. His explanation of his own personal faith journey was also very helpful to read. There has been a need for a book that looks at the interplay between mindfulness and spirituality and Stead has made a good start. It’s not a course though (which he admits) so if you want to learn mindfulness you would need to look elsewhere.

My only criticism is that it was written very much from his personal viewpoint. I suppose none of us can help doing that but when he writes that he sees mindfulness as a practise that will help rebalance the Christian faith away from too much emphasis on ‘what we intellectually believe’ towards a greater emphasis on ‘what we experience’. Many, many Christians would not recognise a problem with ‘too much emphasis on what we intellectually believe’.

Surely Christianity is only ‘too intellectual’ for a very small minority for western, conservative, and mostly evangelical Christians? If we lift our eyes up and take in a global perspective the massive growth of the Christian church is in the Pentecostal stream which, no offence intended, could not be seriously accused of being ‘too intellectual’. The life of a ‘charismatic Christian is ALL about experience – at the extreme end a ‘thrill-seeking, wonder-working, power-encounter of the ‘God’s in my corner’ variety: power everything, power evangelism, power church. For someone of this tradition the concept of ‘making space for God’ is synonymous with being filled with the Holy Spirit and if you ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ why would you need to meditate, you simply need to pray in tongues or have words/pictures from God?

But meditation as an exercise for our minds is somehow different from being filled with the Spirit and experiencing God through spiritual gifts (I write as one who would identify as ‘charismatic’) It adds something not better necessarily, just something different.

Stead poses the questions ‘Does it make sense? and Does it make any difference? of his own Christian faith but I think he also needs to add ‘Is it True?

There seems to be a pendulum which swings between these two

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and when the swing is too much towards the ‘does it work’ side of things we cease to be concerned about whether or not it’s true. And yet it does matter that Christianity true because Christianity is (in my view) the only unfailing ‘omphalos’ we have left to offer hope to our world and it’s only reliable as an ‘omphalos’ if it’s true. (The wonderful word ‘omphalos’ comes from John Higg’s book Stranger than we can imagine and refers to a big central idea that makes sense of everything/that connects heaven and earth). To be fair to Tim Stead, he is not writing a book defending the Christian faith.

So is meditation and mindfulness a power encounter for the timid?

Possibly!

I’ve certainly had a greatly increased sense of the gentle presence of the Holy Spirit recently as I’ve been meditating even though I haven’t been doing anything overtly spiritual such as praying (because meditation is not prayer)  but I do meditate with a conscious awareness that  whatever I am doing, I am doing it in the presence of God so it’s hardly surprising that when I quiet my own mind, I’m better prepared to hear the Holy Spirit’s whisperings.

In addition to this though, my own personal physical stress symptom has disappeared and my ability to find things on my computer (something that regularly causes me a lot of stress) has hugely improved. (I have a filing system, yes that does help, but what has gone, is my own mental panic that I won’t be able to work my own filing system!)

Good book, well worth the purchase price so long as you know it’s not a course on mindfulness. It does though point you towards other helpful places where you can access this.

 

 

Faith in the Future: hope

Thinking back over the book “Stranger than we can Imagine”, would I recommend it?
I’m not sure I would – it’s a fascinating look back over the 20th century but it doesn’t leave you with any sense of hope about the 21st-century. And hope, substantial hope in something solid, is what we all really need right now.

The author, John Higgs, acknowledges that an ‘absolute’ to believe in would be ‘brilliant’ but he has nothing to offer or suggest. And we all need to have faith in the future. Having a child is the ultimate expression of hope in the future. To create, to invest or even to plant seeds and grow vegetables is also to express some kind of sense of hope in the future.

I believe that both the reality (current) and the possibility (future) of the kingdom of God is the hope of the world.

As I look around my peers, those sharing roughly the same decade of life was me (I’m in my mid-50s) I see a variety of ways in which they are finding hope. Some friends have been and still are clinging to life itself, having already been struck with life altering or life limiting conditions. Their hope is simply that they will live.

But what about those of us who are rather complacently taking that fact for granted? We still need hope to get us up each day, we need hope to pull ourselves into a future, we need hope that life is worthwhile and meaningful.

Many of my peers are beginning to find that ‘hope’ or reason for existence in the grandchildren which are now coming along. Or they find it in their accumulation of wealth and/or business success. Nothing wrong with either of these two but neither of them are a ‘given’ that can be relied on.

We cannot demand that our children provide us with grandchildren, that is assuming we have even had the gift of children in the first place.  Nor are we all part of “successful” enterprises. I’ve seen so many couples in their 50s or 60s take up a project (usually abroad) where they can see how their time and energy and money have made visible, measurable difference and there’s wrong with that either!

I guess this is all about our human desire to feel like we have left a legacy, made a difference, that our lives have been lived for a purpose.

But what if you are called to bury yourself into what might feel like a deep dark place where nothing seems to grow? Where hopes and dreams become limited? Try dedicating yourself to the needs of a disabled child or a diminishing parent with dementia or even a dwindling congregation for that matter. If that is where you are at, or in some similar situation, then you need to find a better reason for hope than mere prosperity, multitudes of grandchildren or visible signs of significant “success”.

But here is the BIG TRUTH – (forgive the capitals but this is the ‘knockout punch’that most people spend their lives trying to dodge).The BIG TRUTH is that we all need a reason for hope, meaning that gets us out of bed.

All of us need this hope – you may be blessed with a multitude of distractions in the form of children, grandchildren, wealth or successful enterprises but none of these can be relied upon. All of them can bring joy and grief in equal measure.

The truth that gives me hope is that God is present in our world, God knows me, calls me, sees me, created, even me, for a purpose. My contributions to the world particularly when they are part of bringing in the kingdom of God in any way that enriches anyone else are valuable and noted. Knowing this God is what gives me a sense of hope for the future. Deepening my own awareness of the presence of God in our world and working towards our earth becoming more like heaven (‘on earth as it is in heaven’) and less like hell, seeing signs of this kingdom through God’s presence in me and in the world is what gives me hope.

This IS an absolute – it’s called the kingdom of heaven. Jesus repeatedly called it a feast, a banquet, a party, a wedding. It’s an image of joy, community, celebration and belonging.

You are also invited.

Come on in.

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‘Stranger than we can imagine’ – by John Higgs – Book Review

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This is an amazing read!

It leaps from relativity to Cubism to Surrealism, to the optimism in Star Trek and the nihilism in Casablanca. It explains quantum mechanics using a hilarious analogy of Putin punching a kangaroo. From there it goes on to existentialism, individualism and the space race.

Higgs has written a factual book that manages to be a page turner. Don’t simply dip into the chapters you fancy because you’ll miss the thread. He builds up a case which connects all the huge changes of the 20th century to one theme. It’s an intellectual ‘dot to dot’ tour de force. If I’d read this book before I did either of my degrees, it would have helped SO much.

It’s a hugely entertaining read. He draws on seemingly obscure information and you wonder how it could possibly be relevant but watch out because he will circle back to it later.

For anyone my age or above, he is writing about stuff we can actually remember. For anyone younger than me this book is a most accessible and readable account of the 20th century. If the first rule of understanding where you are now is looking back to see how you got here, Higgs traces humanity’s journey through the last 100 years along the paths of science, music, culture, war, and, to some extent, religion.

Which brings me to one of the two ways in which I would dare to criticise this book. Firstly, he gives a great deal of prominence to people who were really very obscure whilst overlooking others who have been massively influential. One of these obscure people is Aleister Crawley whose ‘thelamite’ religion gets a higher profile than I feel it merits – even though he was on the front cover of the Sgt Pepper album and he was included in a list of 100 most influential British people from the 20th century compiled in 2002. I can see why Higgs gives him this profile. Crawley’s religion epitomised all the most negative traits of individualism – his guiding motto was ‘do what thou wilt’ (without the caveat of ‘so long as it doesn’t hurt anybody’). So Higgs is using Crawley as an illustration rather than trying to make a case for his prominence. All the same it’s annoying that he is referred to so frequently whilst far more outstanding examples of humanity are over-looked.

Individualism is one of the very strong themes that run through the book. The other central idea is that the 20th century was the century in which the world either rejected or found inadequate any framework or concept which claimed to give us a fixed place to stand, a way to understand the world or human beings or God or science – he calls this concept an ‘omphalos’ and it might be a belief or an idea, a deity or a scientific theory. But one by one, he charts how the ‘omplaloi’ (plural) fall through the 20th century.

So my second criticism would be that he completely overlooks the huge extraordinary, world changing rise of the Christian faith particularly through such movements as Pentecostalism. None of the positive movements that have streamed out from groups and individuals motivated by faith were noted. As early as the First World War it was the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) who provided compassion ministries on the field of war and rehabilitated 32,000 ex-soldiers into jobs of work after the war.
Ministries such as that of Oxfam arose from the catholic end of the Christian spectrum. No single stream of Christianity holds the corner on compassion.

I feel that this oversight leaves this book completely lacking in hope. Read it and you will find out all sorts of fascinating things you may not have known. I didn’t know that the most eminent researcher behind the American space programme was a bone fide Nazi who had worked in concentration camps. I didn’t know why the Beatles called themselves the Beatles, (in truth I’d never thought about it but suffice to say it’s nothing to do with insects). I didn’t know that the only ‘positive’ element to existentialism would be its emphasis on ‘living in the moment’ (Hmm – that has interesting implications for mindfulness). From the reasons for Kurt Cobain’s suicide to chaos theory and the connection between the growth of corporations and the 14th amendment of the United States Constitution, Higgs makes so much so very, very clear – yes, even quantum mechanics and Schrödinger’s blessed cat which is alive and dead the same time.

But what Higgs doesn’t manage to do is give any sense of hope. He tries. He tries very, very hard in the final chapter which is given over to a consideration of the influence of the Internet: how it has made us all so much more connected, how it has given rise to a greater accountability and transparency. In these he finds reasons for hope: he thinks that the Internet has imposed what he calls a feedback loop on our culture “we are being made to take responsibility for our choices”. Forgive me for sounding cynical, but I really don’t think the Internet has that kind of power. The Internet itself is morally neutral, like money. It can be used for good but it can be used for bad.

It came as a surprise to me that as a culture we are now beyond post-modernism. I’ve probably just been a bit slow to catch up but apparently “the entire edifice of post-modernism” has now been “routinely rejected”, if not by popular culture (of which I am clearly a part) then at least by academia. “Our current ideology” Higgs says, “stresses that of course there is an absolute“. His italics, not mine!

But don’t hold your breath, waiting for him to tell you what that absolute is. “The absolutist approach to the contradictory nature of scientific models is to say that while all those models are indeed flawed, they will be superseded by a grand theory of everything, a wonderful theory that does not contain any paradoxes and which makes sense of everything on every scale.” That such a theory might finally emerge, Higgs admits, is a leap of faith.

But for such a very erudite person, Higgs is peculiarly ill-equipped to make any ‘leap of faith’ and this is why the book leaves a lingering taste of disappointment, hopelessness and even despair. If you are someone with anxieties about the future I would not recommend reading this book.

He demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of the concept of Christian love, discussing it, as he does,  in the chapter on sex therefore equating love with sexuality in a way that totally overlooks the powerful, life transforming, self giving unconditional kind of love expressed by the God Christians believe in. Muddling  ‘Eros’ with ‘Agape’  puts him in academic kindergarten as far as understanding faith is concerned.

Which is a real shame because Christianity is very good at holding onto paradoxes -believing that two opposing things are true at the same time. These are at the heart of our faith: Jesus is “fully human and fully divine” to name but one. I loved his section on quantum mechanics: how subatomic particles can be in more than one place at one time, how they can spin in different directions at the same time, how they can move instantaneously from one place to another without passing through the distance in between and how they can communicate instantaneously over great distances.  But no one who has ever read their Bible should have any problem with any of those things!

Perhaps he should ponder Colossians chapter 1:
“for it was in Him (Christ) that all things were created, in heaven and on earth, things seen and things unseen, whether thrones, dominions, rulers, or authorities; all things were created [planets, stars, neutrons and protons] and exist through him and in and for him. And he himself existed before all things, and in him all things hold together” (v 16 and 17).

If this isn’t a description of an ‘omphalos’, I don’t know what is.  Yes, it takes a leap of faith to accept it but if the alternative is meaninglessness and despair…..?

That Christ is the connection between heaven and earth, that the coming of the kingdom of God ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ is the only reason for hope and that God can be addressed as a loving parent (‘Our Father’ or mother) not simply another version of a feudal ‘Lord’ (which Higgs takes as the reason for the ‘decline’ of Christianity, which, by the way, hasn’t actually declined at all if you take a global view rather than his short-sighted western view) – all these are substantial and in my view trustworthy reasons for hope.

So read this book – but don’t despair! There IS hope, of which I shall shortly say more…

“Cure: a journey into the science of Mind over Body” Jo Marchant – Book Review

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This is an absolutely fascinating read. Written by a scientist, it explores the research into ways our minds influence our physical well-being, our tolerance of pain and our immunity. The first chapter is all about the placebo effect. So far so good, most of us have heard of this and feel slightly self-conscious about the truth that simply taking something we think will do us good, might actually do us good. But we think we have to be conned into thinking we might be getting the real thing in order for placebos to ‘work’.  However in chapter 2, we get into really interesting territory: how placebo treatments can still be effective EVEN when we know they are placebo treatments!

In these two first chapters Marchant has laid the foundation for the simple truth which she then  explores throughout the rest of the book and the truth is this: your mind can influence your physical well-being. There are psychological resources which can be harnessed which will materially affect our recovery from an illness or our ability to manage the symptoms of a chronic condition.

She is NOT talking about “the power of positive thinking” which is a concept that makes me cringe and I feel can load unnecessary guilt onto people who are already weighed down by their pain and the distress of their condition. At the extreme end of the “positive thinking” spectrum there are those people who would eschew normal and appropriate medical interventions, in my view a very foolish step. This is not a book which makes any suggestion along those lines, in fact it carries (in the final chapter) a very stark warning story about the dangers of relying on positive thinking alone.

The story that Marchant tells is about non-medical treatments and interventions which, used alongside appropriate pharmaceutical intervention, can make a huge difference. The kind of conditions she discusses are lupus, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, chronic fatigue, IBS and pain management for burns victims.  The kind of psychological treatments she explores are: (warning, if you are from a conservative evangelical Christian background some of these will give you the ‘heebie-jeebies’) placebos and the power of rituals, hypnosis, meditation, mindfulness, counselling, the power of empathic communication (positive suggestions and visual imagery) and biofeedback.

The astonishing part of the story for me was not that these treatments merely “feel” effective but that over and over again she demonstrates from research that such treatments can physically change our bodies. For example, people who regularly meditate actually grow their cerebral cortex. In other words, the physical structure of their brains changes – in a good way!

It is a deeply fascinating book, and not only if you happen to be suffering from an illness and are wondering what you could do to help yourself. A chapter entitled “Fountain of youth” explores how social isolation is as dangerous for our health as obesity, inactivity or smoking, possibly even more dangerous than these. Alongside this information she reports that in the US 32 million people live alone-27% of households. In 1985 another American survey showed that in general people said they had three confidants, when this study was repeated in 2004, 25% of people said they had none! (This theme is also very fully explored in the book “The Village Effect” which I have already blogged about Book Review: The Village Effect: why face to face contact matters by Susan Pinker ).

Every chapter had something new and thought-provoking, it would be hard to choose a favourite but from my personal perspective chapter 7 “Talk to me: why caring matters” gave me ideas I could immediately apply to those I care for. Chapter 9 “Enjoy the Moment: the Power of Meditation” was also extremely helpful. Mindfulness and meditation has been shown to reduce chronic pain and anxiety, also to reduce stress and improve our quality of life. It has been shown that when monks meditate their brains are highly organised and coordinated with neurons firing together and an increase of activity in the left prefrontal cortex which is the seat of positive thoughts and emotions.

Of course, as I’ve already said, some Christians have heebie-jeebies over the subject of meditation and mindfulness simply because those monks may not necessarily be Christians, they may be Buddhists. This book is written by someone who is not a Christian so she clearly doesn’t feel any need to justify meditation but she does tell the story of how a Buddhist medical researcher Jon Kabat Zim, recognised that many people were missing out on the benefits of meditation because they were put off by the religious baggage that surrounded it. So he stripped it of its spiritual aspects, developing a program called MBSR ‘mindfulness-based stress reduction’.

To keep this blog from becoming too long (and also because some readers will not be interested in where spirituality fits in to all this) I will write a second reflection about how the book challenged me on a spiritual level. In her final chapter, Marchant turns her attention to whether or not religious experience and belief can also affect our bodies and our brains. I confess to feeling nervous about what conclusions she might reach but suffice to say that while she wasn’t entirely ‘converted’ neither does she debunk or reject the value of spiritual belief.

To conclude this review though, I heartily recommend this intriguing and well-written book. I read it as someone who teaches people skills designed to enhance their mental well-being (the Keeping Health in Mind Course http://www.keepinghealthinmind.org.uk) and I found in it much good common sense as well as a great deal of fascinating science.

 

Where Memories Go – book Review

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This is one of the saddest books I’ve ever read. That’s not to say it isn’t good, it is.  But it is also pretty unrelentingly sad.

Sally Magnusson, daughter of the well-known writer and TV personality,  Magnus Magnusson, writes both her mother’s life story and the story of the mother’s descent into dementia. Along the way, she also writes an account of what is currently known about dementia and Alzheimer’s as well as offering a critique of the care options available.

It was incredibly moving and there was so much I recognised as my own mother has dementia but she is not yet as bad as Mamie became before she died. You’d think it would be obvious that I’d find it hard to read but it caught me off-guard. Sally writes so movingly, I found myself experiencing my own sense of sadness and loss, vicariously through her and this made me realise that, for the most part (and for very good reasons),  I don’t regularly examine or even allow myself to experience my sadness over mum’s decline.

This might sound unfeeling but I’d be not much practical use to my mum as a sobbing wreck so mostly we just get on with stuff and I don’t dwell too much on how much she is drifting away from the person she was and how much I miss the mum she was to me.  I’m sure these psychological birds will come home to roost at some point, I will have to grieve sometime.

So this book snuck in under my radar. I admit I only skimmed the final few chapters, I couldn’t bear to read what might lie ahead for us. But I read enough to know how Mamie died and what choices the family made about her care. Sally is brilliant at explaining the complex dynamics at work over every decision but if I had one criticism of the book it would be this:  I felt they had it easier than many people. I know it’s unfair to compare one family’s hardship against another family’s but there were a number of factors for the Magnusson family that, in my view, made it ‘easier’ than for others. They had the choice to keep her at home within the family and whilst that is harder (but only in some ways) than putting a loved one into care, at least they had the power to make that choice.  Many people do not. And it is also very hard to put a loved one into care and then worry incessantly about whether they are safe, settled and as well-cared as you’d like them be. Secondly there were four siblings to share the load which had to help. Undeniably they all had their own major life issues going on concurrently but don’t we all?  I don’t know if Sally was just being extremely generous to her siblings (and who is to say, she may have been) but their story seems devoid of the rancour and fall out that can so easily occur when the care of an elderly parent falls unevenly on one or more sibling.  I felt at times like I’d been given a insider pass to a rather glorious, golden, almost Dickensian extended family full of songs, japes and jolly traditions.

I don’t mean to be unkind, I’m sure the Magnusson family are every bit as lovely as she described them but the point I am making is that in many families dementia can be the final straw on already strained relationships. Not everyone inhabits a golden world where marriages are in tact, siblings are in harmony and  where elderly but competent spinster aunts can ‘live in’ long-term (and what a long extra period of care than gave them). Plus not everyone can keep their loved one in their own home. The slight sense that any other choice would be disloyal or unloving left me feeling uneasy.

Decisions taken on behalf of vulnerable people are never straight-forward or easy. There is no better way through only the ‘best way through’ for each individual case and when relatives are doing the best they can with the hand they’ve been dealt then it’s not for us to make a judgement. Dementia is hard enough without adding any sense of failure to someone’s already burdened shoulders.

Would I recommend it? It depends what you are looking for. If you are looking for a scientific account, it’s not fully that. If you are looking for tips and suggestions for living well with dementia, it’s not either.If you like reading about other people’s  lives then this is for you. If you want someone help you understand just how sad and devastating it is lose someone you love to dementia, then this is book for you (even if you already know that from insider experience) It’s not upbeat and cheerful but it is very interesting and very well written.

 

 

 

Book Review: The Village Effect: why face to face contact matters by Susan Pinker

Watching this powerful video made by Steve Cutts for the song ‘Are you lost in the world like me?’ reminded me of how much I was impacted by reading The Village Effect by Susan Pinker earlier this year.

Pinker makes one point. Yes, only the one point! But she makes it really effectively and what makes her book worth reading is the huge amount of fascinating and well-researched evidence that she uses to back up her point. She discusses how social bonds will alter the outcome of serious diseases, improve our mental well-being and alter the lives of our children.

Her point is this: we would all be better off emotionally, physically, psychologically and in just about ever other way if we simply increased the amount of face-to-face interaction we have regularly with the people we love.

Loneliness, exacerbated by the modern tendency to only interact via social media, texts or emails, is literally a killer. If we meet friends regularly to drink, hang out, knit, exercise, discuss books, eat, or whatever, we will lower our cortisol and blood pressure levels, we will live longer and the effect can be more marked than taking regular medication or quitting smoking. Incidentally out of  ‘seven billion people in the world, six billion think religion helps them to live a long, meaningful life’ and they are are on to something. Attending a religious service at least once a week hugely increases your longevity. (Yay! what about us ‘professionals’ who go 4 or 5 times?)

Some of the stories and data that she shares are literally jaw-dropping: how much you can alter the outcome for your teenage daughter by simply ensuring you eat a main meal with her daily and converse. We instinctively feel that that would be a good thing to do but Pinker has collated the research and, if she is right, then its a VERY good and powerful thing to do. And yet, it is also simple and achievable. In a chapter called ‘Teens and Screens’she tells the story of an ordinary young teenager called Allison who sent or received 27,000 texts a month, often 900 a day, keeping around 7 conversations going at a time – that’s a full time job!! How the heck did she fit in eating, sleeping and studying whilst managing this  ‘tsunami of texts’? Okay, so it turns out Allison was at the extreme end of text use, Pinker informs us that in 2012 4,000 texts a month was the average for teenage girls in the States. Even so, that still works out at 6-7 every waking hour. And texts are so ‘bare’: no eye contact, no tone of voice, no softening of message with emotion, no irony. For young people with notoriously less than adequate social skills and often with a skewed, paranoid perspective on life its not hard to see why texts can be so brutal.

I have changed my life on the basis of reading this book (which is not quite the same as saying that my life has changed entirely due to reading this book but it’s close). But I have made a concerted effort to increase the amount of face to face contact I have with those people who I love and those whose presence in my life I value deeply. I have also tried to replace digital contact with human contact wherever reasonable and practical.  I have to say though, it’s not as easy as it sounds. If you are introverted vicar (as I am) and you only have one day off a week (as I do) it feels hugely difficult to drag yourself out on your one day off to see a friend. Because the job involves so much face to face contact for so much of the day, for me and my introverted kin, our instinct is to pull up the social drawbridge and go for a long walk with the dog.  I know it’s good for me to see friends regularly but it’s also really important to have some solitary time too, so finding time for both is constant challenge.

Of all the images in the video above the one I find the  most tragic is of the young girl in her bedroom snapping ‘happy selfies’ in a drab and desperate bedroom. It brought back a vivid memory from a month ago: whilst sitting reading and enjoying the sunshine on a very crowded Italian beach surrounded by happy family groups, couples and cousins, kids and grannies. I observed a young Japanese woman who came to the beach all on her own, took out her towel and then her phone and then her selfie stick. For the next hour, all alone in the midst of that mad crowd of connected people, all she did was pose and take selfies of herself ‘having a good time at the beach’ but she was so clearly not having a good time, she was having a lonely time.  I found myself thinking ‘ I hope to goodness you at least have someone who loves you, a granny, a mum, a lover. Someone who would genuinely want to see even just a few of the 500 + photos you have taken of yourself this afternoon’. She didn’t connect to anyone on the beach.  Even the ‘selfie stick’ (a purchase I steadfastly refuse to make) has robbed us of that simple moment of human trust when we used to hand our camera over to a stranger and say ‘would you mind taking our photo?’.

It’s a desperately sad video. The opening image of being a tiny little person in a very big world was the one with which I personally most identified. Simply spending a day in London, gives me ‘face exhaustion’! But even so, I ‘m glad that  I can’t agree with the sentiment of the singer: I don’t feel lost in the world: I know I’m known, I know I’m loved and not by just anybody (and  certainly not by anyone who’d be interested in 500 selfie photos) but by the one who created the stars and knows them by name, the God who says he knows how many hairs are on my head, the one who formed me in my mother’s womb. He has ‘all of the days of my life written in his book before one of them came to be’ (Psalm 139). And I trust that I’m known and loved by many friends but was challenged by this book to make sure I nurture these friendships face to face.

So I must get out more –  Gotta dash, I’m going to see a friend. I don’t know if I’ll live any longer for it but I do want to live better.

 

 

 

 

Women, politics and hope

Yesterday evening I enjoyed a lovely meal with a group of girlfriends I hadn’t seen for a while. On previous such occasions the main focus of our conversation would be about the personal details of our lives “how are the kids doing?”, “Where are you going on holiday?”, that type of stuff.

But last night we talked more about politics and cultural shifts in society than anything else. And not in any dry disconnected, impersonal way. We shared deep despair and anxiety about what we see happening around us.

We reflected, and this has been said many times already in the last month, that we have been living through “momentous times” but when I came home from the evening out and heard the news of yet another shooting atrocity, this time in Munich, it struck me that the true nature of this period of history will only actually be known with hindsight.

It had seemed to us, talking quietly in a beautiful garden on a lovely summer evening that the world around us was going mad: children mowed down by a truck at the seaside, an unarmed black man with his hands in the air (a position of total surrender and vulnerability) shot by police in America, racism and xenophobia seemingly legitimised by the Brexit vote.

Our lives are touched by these events in different and personal ways, each of us unique. For Matthew, our son, the love of his life is a wonderful girl called Stine, who happens to be Danish and is planning to come over here to live and find work in order to be with the person she loves. There is nothing wrong in that but will she be made to feel welcome, I hope so. Emma and Ben, our daughter and son-in-law, were on holiday near Nice last week and could so easily have been on the seafront but even when not on holiday they both live, work and travel in places that might be considered terrorist risk areas.

One of my friends told me about a mutual friend who has worked for a big national UK company for 20 years and is married to an English woman who was asked by a colleague, in all seriousness, on June 24 “what are you still doing here?”. Our friend is French. My own husband’s firm employs numerous foreign nationals partly because there simply are not UK engineers out there to be recruited.

Even in my local, mainly white, mainly middle-class neighbourhood, someone had gone around posting stickers on lampposts each with the phrase “gas the immigrants”.

“Grossly offensive” doesn’t even begin to cover that message. Horrific shades of extreme right-wing Nazi politics which tapped into the downtrodden and those who felt hard done by in Germany. All this and I tremble when I hear Donald Trump declaring that he is the candidate of the poor and the downtrodden.

I’m sure in many places in the UK and all over Europe groups of friends may have gathered on similar sunny evenings during the summer of 1939. They might have anguished and worried about their world ‘going mad’. Possibly they also knew that they were living in “momentous times” but just how momentous would only be revealed with hindsight.

What’s all this shows is that ALL events and ALL attitudes have the potential to be momentous. All it takes to bring about a huge change is for the myriad small actions and attitudes of people to accumulate to a tipping point. Like the myriad of ‘protest’votes that were cast for the leave campaign “because I really didn’t think it would make any difference”. The upside of this argument is that a myriad of small positive actions and attitudes can also make a huge difference.

Who knows how momentous the summer of 2016 might be for our world or what might unfold in the next few years. But, as in 1939-45, so now: it is the individual acts of kindness, generosity, welcome, inclusion, compassion and forgiveness that are the only thing that will turn the tide against the rise of evil.

When Jesus spoke of the end times he spoke about a diminution of kindness “for many others, the overwhelming spread of evil will do them in, nothing left of their love but amount of ashes”. (Matthew 24:11, 12 Eugene Peterson The Message).

The stories we prefer to recall from World War II are precisely those stories of people who took extraordinary personal risks to save the outcast and oppressed (the Jews), those who showed compassion as well as courage. And also those who, when the darkness was passed, worked hard for reconciliation and peace.

As I’ve reflected on all of this this morning, three things have given me hope.

Firstly, a snippet of information from the Munich news story about social media being used positively by ordinary people to rescue terrified people stranded in Munich city centre after the public transport was closed. On Twitter many city centre residents posted #offeneTur which translates #opendoor, meaning that they would be willing to take in any stranded strangers needing shelter or hospitality.   What a brilliant example of the power of ordinary people to make the world a safer place for complete strangers who they recognise as simply other human beings in need.

Can we also be those who ‘hold the door open’ to our fellow human beings who are frightened, rejected, to the the stranger, or to someone who simply speaks English with an accent or has a different ethnic heritage from our own.

(The whole idea of an open door is a metaphor that resonates very deeply within me – struggling as we do with a physically closed door)

Secondly, we watched a brilliant  documentary about the making of the opening ceremony for the 2012 games in London

Imagine: An extraordinary night http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p041g600

This was a reminder of a period in our history only four years ago, when we felt as a nation jaded and cynical, lacking self-confidence. The documentary was a story of how a group of volunteers helped to create the incredible pageantry and story of the opening ceremony in which the lives of ordinary people was celebrated and shown to be powerful.

The opening ceremony was followed by another huge success, not the games themselves necessarily but that other volunteer group called “the games makers”. People who brought transformation because they served selflessly according to values such as welcome, hospitality, kindness, generosity, helpfulness. Values espoused by all major religions but expressed supremely well as the fruit of the spirit in Galatians 5:22.

I recommend this documentary to you if you need a dose of hopefulness in a dark world, to be reminded of the power of creative teamwork and the excitement generated by generous and committed service.

Thirdly, my final encouragement  this week was reading a book called “Wonder” by R J Palacio. A children’s book, it can be read very quickly but is very powerful in its message. Deserving of a review all of its own I will blog about it another time suffice to say that it is the story of a young child going to school for the first time at the age of nine, this child has a severe facial disfigurement due to a genetic problem.

Here is the line that impacted me the most most.

“If it comes down to a choice between being right or being kind: choose kindness”

This has relevance to the political issues this post has been discussing (and aware that not everyone I know, nor everyone who reads this blog or knows me will have voted in the same way all have the same views that I have)

“Faith, hope and love abide” said St Paul, “but the greatest of these is love”