Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Fasting from Facebook?

New technolgies like Facebook and Twitter are 'rewiring our mental processes without permission'. thus writes Shane Hipps in a perceptive artcle, 'Forming our souls with Facebook'.

  1. Excessive Facebook use turns us into an exhibitionist... An exhibitionist is someone who wants you to see them. So while there is little voyeurism, there is a lot of exhibitionism on Facebook.
  2. Excessive Facebook use turns us into narcissists....The narcissism created by these technologies is unique.  It encourages not just self-absorption, but more accurately self-consumption.  We become creators and consumers of our own brand.  We become enamored by a particular kind of self, a pseudo-self.
  3. Excessive Facebook use can 'disintegrate' us. ...Over enough time this subtle affect creates a minor split in us.  A split between who we are and who we think we are.  This tiny fracture may seem insignificant, but if we remain unconscious, it leads us away from a life of wholeness and integration.
  4. Excessive Facebook use can make ordinary healthy relationships more difficult...So while Facebook and other social media connect us to more digital relationships, at the same time they deteriorate our ability to maintain healthy relationships in real life.  This affect is particularly acute among adolescents for developmental reasons.
He's not much gentler onTwitter, but heed his conclusion...

Now it will be tempting to conclude after all this ranting that I am simply a Luddite, a technophobe bent on the dismantling of all digital technologies.  This is not the case, though admittedly, I was hardly even-handed in my observations. However, to herald the virtues of our technology is mostly redundant, it would be like trying to argue the importance of breathing.  It’s already here and the value it adds is self-evident.  This is why the technologies are so prevalent, we intuit their benefits otherwise we wouldn’t use them.  My concern is that our culture seems only capable of seeing the benefit, and utterly blind to the liabilities, the inevitable losses of certain technologies.  I have no interest in trying to end or stop such technological innovations; to do so is like trying to resist the wind or the tides.  Instead I want us to understand them with depth.  Not with na├»ve embrace or fearful rejection.
If we learn to wake up and understand, perhaps we will be able to use them rather than be used by them.
And his prescription (in relation to Twitter but similar for Facebook)
Once again, a simple fast may be appropriate.  Ignore your Twitter feed for a week and see what happens.  What do you miss?  What do you gain?  Pay attention when you feel an impulse to check Twitter and ask yourself, what is this about?  Am I bored? Restless? Lonely? Curious? Feeling disconnected? Needing a break form the monotony of existence?  Then sit with the feeling.  Let it arise fully without resisting it or retaining it.  See what it might have to teach you and check to see if there is something else beneath or behind it.  Often there is wisdom waiting to be born, but it means being patient.

Monday, 29 April 2013

How to read the Bible in meetings

Yesterday I spent a useful hour with some of our Bible reading team. At Grace we believe that the part of the service when the Bible is read is not just a time filler, but is an opportunity to hear from God. The Bible is a remarkable book and God has chosen a host of different authors to speak to us. Similarly we use a variety of different readers who do their best to convey the Bible reading in a meaningful way.

So does it matter how well the Bible is read?  Many of us have heard extremely flat readings of truly exhilarating parts of the Bible, as well as little Jonny reading the lesson at the carol service, with all the emphases in the wrong place. I'm not a kill joy, but God's word matters and I believe it honours him if we try to read it well. But reading it well, what might that mean?  I've certainly been helped by others, particularly Max Maclean and his book, Unleashing the word,  as well as Public Reading of Scripture: A Handbook,  by Clay Schmit, a Lutheran minister and Fuller Theological Seminary professor. But this is what we have come up with, 

The 10 commitments to good Bible reading at Grace

  1. Practice the passage. This means that you will need more than 10 minutes notice that you are going to read. Preferably you should know at least a couple of days in advance. Practice reading it out loud to get a feel for the passage. Read silently to. yourself will not help you identify pronunciation and pauses.
  2. Aim to understand what you are reading. This will have a enormous bearing on your emphases and pauses. If you are not sure about the meaning check with the preacher (who has likely chosen the passage), or the service leader,  or a good commentary.
  3. Do not read too fast, nor too slow. Take a slow deep breath at the beginning and try to breath slowly. 
  4. Look for the pauses, emphases and questions in the passage. Look for the question marks, exclamation marks, quotation marks, and adapt your reading accordingly. Use pace for emphasis.
  5. Use emotion but do not be over dramatic. Be interested in the passage, don't read it as though it were a telephone directory.
  6. Look up only occasionally. Avoid the bobbing head.
  7. Introduce the passage by referring  to the text you are going to read, the page number in the church Bible, and the fact that the reading is in the meeting guide and on the screen. Use your own words to introduce and close the reading, eg 'Let's hear God's word', and 'This is God's word'. This suggestion is optional and can be left entirely to you. Whatever you do or don't do, let people know that the Bible is special! 
  8. Print off the reading in larger type, and extra spacing, so you can see it more clearly, and mark it as necessary. But make sure you use the correct version. Avoid biblegateway.com, since it has multiple NIV versions. Instead use  http://www.biblestudytools.com/niv/  it looks as though it is the same 1984 version that we have in the church Bibles. 
  9. Try not to let you voice tail off at the end of sentence. Don't sound like a cleric, sing-songing the reading
  10. Pray. Pray that the reading will speak to you and that God will speak to others as you read the passage.
Other practical points we discussed were whether a very short (2 sentence max) intro to set the reading in context might be helpful. But rather than doing this off your own back it would be better to discuss with the service leader or preacher.

Practically it is a good idea to approach the lectern after the preceding song/prayer, and don't wait to be announced then (that the Bible reading was going to take place should have already have been announced).

OK it's an effort-but worth it!

And what I do in anything...

A few further thoughts on the hymn, Teach me my God and King by George Herbert.

Teach me my God and King
In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
To do it as for Thee.

Portrait by Robert White 1674 National Gallery
And what I do in anything, to do it as for Thee. Hmm, here is a realistic motivation for living, which can really help the Christian believer facing what may seem to be drudgery. For no life can be lived in a permeant state of high, and every life has shades, peaks and troughs. Herbert presents us  what what he playfully calls the 'famous stone which turneth all to gold'. Here he is musing on the quest so beloved of scientists and alchemists of his time to find the philosophers stone or the elixir. This mythical substance was thought to have the ability to turn base metals like lead and copper, into gold. Of course it remains a mirage.

But what can turn the everyday life of a Christian into something more than mere duty. Herbert argues that if done, 'for thy sake', the possibility is there of finding deep satisfaction and contentment in the lowest of tasks.

All may of Thee partake
Nothing can be so mean
Which with this tincture (for thy sake)
Will to grow bright and clean

Herbert encourages us that all our actions may benefit from this principle (for thy sake), however insignificant ('mean'), so that it acts like a tincture, (a quality that pervades), and makes any action bright and clean.

A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine
Who sweep a room as for thy laws, 
Makes that and th'action fine.

So with for thy sake motivating, even drudgery can become divine, or 'godly'. Even sweeping a room can be a 'consecrated activity'. Surely Herbert is not encouraging us to become odd and rather weirdly 'spiritual'. Rather he is encouraging a whole life discipleship which I have mentioned before and which is so well taught by Mark Green and others at LICC. 
Herbert concludes,

This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for less be told

Indeed anything that God touches is certainly as valuable as gold.

And keeping with 17th century language,
'Whether therefore ye eat or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do it all for the glory of God' 1 Cor 10.31
'And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men' Col 3.23

Saturday, 27 April 2013

'Hobgoblin nor foul fiend'

Bunyan's staue in Bedford
Thankfully Mrs Thatcher's funeral service passed off peacefully. One of the hymns chosen for the service was John Bunyan's "Who would true valour see'. Its' a hymn that most people of my generation being brought up in Bedford, would have been familiar with. After all, Bunyan was the 'tinker of Bedford', and is perhaps Bedford's most famous son.

We often sang the hymn in school assembly, and unlike at Mrs Thatcher's funeral, where the opening words of verse 3 were changed to the rather anaemic, 'Since Lord Thous dost defend us with Thy spirit', we were not daunted by Bunyan's original opening words of verse 3
'Hobgoblin nor foul fiend can daunt his spirit'
It appears that the hymn was only introduced into English hymnals in 1906 and Dr Percy Dearmer who edited the book, was not keen on Bunyan's rather dramatic words. Hence his alteration.

So why stick with hobgoblins and foul fiends? Well Bunyan's masterpiece, The Pilgrims Progress, gave a vivid account of the Christian life. This life was marked by frequent challenges and obstacles, and in the person of Valiant-for-Truth, the pilgrim continued on right to the end. The book is a helpful corrective to any modern day account of the Christian life suggesting constant success and convenience. Yep. as Bunyan rightly points out there are plenty of experiences to daunt the spirit. But some of the Christian's obstacles are more imagined than real-hence the hobgoblin.

Even in Bunyan's day it was recognised that  hobgoblins have no reality. Mentioned only twice in Shakespeare, and then only in playful, fairy connections, they have no more reality for Bunyan than satyrs, fiends and dragons, and are part of the evil forces encountered by pilgrim in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.  They are merely a figure of speech. As one commentator points out,
'Bunyan wanted a word that would suggest fears that have no foundation. Millions make themselves miserable with utterly baseless worries, fears that are every bit as absurd as fear of a hobgoblin.'
This seems to be like an early example of CBT, cognitive behavioural therapy. My good friend Dr Gaius Davies (see his Genius Grief and Grace), points out that so much of St Paul's letters function like this. Thus get your thinking straight and live in the light of that rather than melting before adverse circumstances, which in reality have changed nothing. Or as Paul would say, 'If God be for us who can be against us?'

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

The age of anxiety

An article in today's Independant tells us that one in five Americans suffers from it, and I suspect the stats are not greatly different in the UK. As the article points out, a degree of anxiety is a normal human emotion, but for many the effects can be almost overwhelming.

What's to be done?

There's certainly no quick fix but a few things may be helpful.

1. Try get some exercise everyday. A good walk is fine, but even better would be a slow jog if you're able. The running magazines frequently feature articles by non runners who have found a degree of peace of mind after taking up the sport.
2. There are some excellent self help books. One which I have recommended countless times is Overcoming Anxiety by psychologist Heken Kennerly. You can get it on Kindle as well, so you could download it to your smart phone. It has good descriptions of the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy as well us helpful suggestions on relaxation  exercises.
3. There is a very good self help web site at www.livnglifetothefull.com. It's well worth checking out.
4. For short term crises, the benzodiazepines (like Valium) are still very useful, but of course should be prescribed for very short courses only.
5. It is worth discussing with your GP. He or she may be able to provide the help you need, or could perhaps arrange some suitable counselling.

Anxiety can be horrible and it's really worth getting some help. Don't suffer in silence.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Be still and know that I am God

Psalm 46. 10 "Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth." 11 The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. "Selah" 

These  familiar words from Psalm 46 have brought comfort to many believers over the years. I happened to mention them to one of my fellow leaders at Grace the other week whereupon he was quick to point out that the words are somewhat taken out of context, and as such are not a call for personal passivity and contemplation.

So going to my trusty IVP commentary and the always pithy comments of Derek Kidner, I read..
Psalm 46.10, 11: The injunction Be still....is not in the first place comfort for the harassed but a rebuke to a restless and turbulent world: 'Quiet!'-in fact, 'Leave off!' It resembles the command to another raging sea: 'Peace! Be still!' And the end in few is stated in terms not of man's hopes but of God's glory. His firm intention 'I will be exalted' is enough to arouse the resentment of the proud but the longing and resolve of the humble: 'Be exalted, O God above the heavens' (Ps 57.11). But also their renewed confidence. The refrain comes back with added force, if such a God is 'with us', and if one so exalted is 'our high stronghold' (NEB).

Yikes...still God is generous and often blesses us when we unwittingly apply Biblical truth to our lives which, taken in their context, probably don't bear the weight of what we are thinking (you only have to read Spurgeon to realise this!!).

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Beautiful Bedfordshire

My home county of Bedfordshire is a humble place. Although it scarcely gets a mention in the Lonely Planet or Rough Guides,  it doesn't lack for simple rural charm.

Yesterday Biddy and I went to buy pea sticks from a small family business in rural Gravenhurst called Wassledean in the south of the county. As we entered a field with their small herd of Red Poll cattle lazily ruminating, we were greeted by a lovely vista in the early Spring evening, OK it's not the Yorkshire Dales, but this view of the easterly part of the Chilrern hills was enough to inspire  Bunyan with his account of the 'delectable mountains'.

Learning to listen

I'm really enjoying the somewhat unusually titled book, Monk Habits for Everyday People, by Dennis Okholm, subtitled,  Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants. A rather refreshing observation he makes early on is that,
Some contemporary Christian worship has a way of secularising worship rather than sanctifying everyday life as the monastic office does

This is an aspect of everyday Christian life which we are trying to help each other with at Grace. In our small groups we are using the excellent material from LICC,  Life on the frontline. And last Sunday I spoke about an old 17th hymn which could almost be an anthem for 'whole of life discipleship'-the wonderful poem/hymn by George Herbert,  Teach me my God and King in all things Thee to see.

Okholm quotes form Michael Casey and his book Guide to Living, on the value of silence, and the danger of talk, emphasised in the Benedictine tradition,

Talk...restricts our capacity to listen, it banishes mindfulness and opens the door to distraction and escapism. Talking too much often convinces us of the correctness of our conclusions and leads some into thinking they are wise. It can be a suble exercise in arrogance and superiority. Often patterns of dependance, manipulation and  dominance are established and maintained by the medium of speech.

As the Tremeloes would sing, Silence is golden. (for all my fellow children of the sixties!!).

Friday, 19 April 2013

"Dying ain't easy"

It really is a privilege being GP. Ok there is the increasing hassle from the Department of Health (it feels like there has been constant meddling and change for at least the last 10 years), but every now and again, the patients bring you back t the essence of it all.

So today I visit a dear chap who is dying with cancer.  His opening words to me as I crouched by his bedside, "dying ain't easy", set the tone for our entire conversation and enabled the whole encounter to be marked by openness and honesty-and I hope not a little empathy.

Care of the dying is immensely important in general practice and has been a feature of it for centuries. Ok end of life care has greatly benefitted by the hospice movement over the last 40 years or so, and by the more recent formalising of it with end of life teams springing up everywhere. But none of this takes away from a GP's role. So what do we bring that others don't?

1. If we have been in a practice for a decent length of time we will hopefully have established a relationship with the patient when formerly they'd had only minor illness.
2. As a result of a prior knowledge there will be shared memories and experiences which can be  reminisced over
3. It also might help in anticipating what sort of management and care the patient would most wish for.
4. GPs generally see the bigger picture. This including knowledge of other members of the family and their relationship with the patient, and indeed any specific care and support that they may need through the dyng process.
5. A knowledge of what medication can now be stopped  (since the benefits may be designed for the long term, such as BP treatments), and not just what therapy the patient may now need.
6. A familiar regular face, especially if the dying process is prolonged. It is not just what you do that matters to the patient, but who you are. It's much harder for the patient if different doctors and nurses and others see the patient. This is one of the potential downsides of part-time working and is certainly a consequence of the loss of  old style on-call arrangements when a certain amount of night cover was provided by the patient's own GP.

No, it ain't easy dying.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Earth's crammed with heaven

Last night at Grace we looked at the old George Herbert hymn, Teach me my God and King in all things thee to see (in fact a poem called The Elixir).  It's part of a monthly series we are doing, trying to mine some of the great old hymns that it is worth modern Christians knowing. I love the contemporary hymns of Getty and Townend and we sing shed loads of them, but to avoid Lewis's chronological snobbery, how important it is that we recognise that we stand on the shoulders of Christians from the past and learn from them.

Teach me my God and King is a great reminder of the whole life discipleship which Mark Greene and LICC so helpfully promote. Or to put it another way, the hymn advocates an everyday spirituality which is at once appealing and challenging.

To ask to have our eyes opened to see God in all of life, whether the beauty of the 'natural' world', or the intricacy of the latest smart phone (designed and made by men and women made in the image of a creator and creative God), is a great prayer to prayer. Verse 2 reminds us of the limitations of looking at the window rather than through the window.

'A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heaven espy.''

And that is the problem with an entirely naturalistic, 'surface' view of life.  It never looks up and through and beyond the ordinary habits of life, whether eating, sleeping, working, playing or whatever, that there is another unseen reality, an eternal creator God. For many of us we have those occasional transcendent experiences, whether gazing at the ocean or sunset, or going to a cemetery, or walking in the Alps, when all that goes to make  up who we are screams at us that 'there is more'.

This lovely clip from  Shawshank Redemption and the commentary from 'Red' goes someway to explain those in-breakings of the eternal into our bruised and broken world.
But we need eyes to see (and indeed ears to hear). Those multiple 'little' experiences , whether of the kindness of others, the deep satisfaction of a long standing friendship, the joy of a bright Spring morning or the unexpected tears that well up when a certain piece of music is heard, point us to the ultimate kindness, to the unfailing friend, and to the  one who is the 'bright and morning star, and even the one who sings over us (Zephaniah 3.17). To Jesus Christ himself.

In the person of Jesus Christ a hole was made in the fabric of the universe and the invisible God became visible. The barrier between us and Him was broken down, and the death we all face was made a temporary inconvenience only. The payment for our deep seated hostility and independence from God was paid in full in his dying on the cross, and Jesus calls us to follow him, and begin to live eternal life. 

More soon on the other great theme of The Elixir, 'and what I do in anything, to do it as for Thee'.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Love your neighbour

Big thanks to one of my neighbours, Chris, for rescuing my breakfast this morning by opening my new jar of raspberry jam. My poor old wrists just ain't as strong as they were. Biddy was a little taken aback that I would ask a neighbour such a favour, but why not? We are blessed with great neighbours and even know the names of the occupants four houses either side. Doesn't sound much, but what about you?

In our disconnected world how important is a simple thing like knowing who your neighbours are. Part of the joy of life is helping others when in need, it 's a sort of case of, ' it's more blessed to give than receive'. Try it and you'll see.

A message from the other side

No, not that side! But thank God got through surgery ok yesterday. And thanks to all for love support and prayer.