Friday, 30 August 2013

Dave Lee Travis, Tyler Hamilton, Adam and Eve (and me..)

In his remarkable account of the widespread doping which has been the norm for Tour de France cyclists, Tyler Hamilton has finally come clean. For many years he and former colleague Lance Armstrong strenuously denied all accusations. In Hamilton's case even when directly asked by his parents if he was doping. He even allowed his parents to support a campaign to clear his name when he  knew that he was guilty.

The whole sorry tale is told in considerable detail in The Secret Race,  a book that contributed largely to Lance Armstrong's downfall.  Armstrong, like Hamilton, had denied wrong doing for many years. But as the evidence accumulated against him, he finally conceded defeat. His interview with Oprah is almost painful to watch, although it's hard to feel any sympathy for him.  He'd mislead so many people for so long and brazenly supported anti-doping campaigns, when he was indulging all the time.

I really don't know if Dave Lee Travis is innocent of the charges against him and which he strenuously denies. I sincerly hope so. But I do know that denial of wrong doing is all too easy and no guarantee of truth telling. Blame shifting is innate and is first recorded of Adam and Eve when confronted with their disobedience towards  their loving Creator. What is so disturbing about Hamilton's book is just how long such deceit can continue, despite leaving the person ever more trapped in the web of lies needed. It's salutary and a reminder of how powerful sin is. Attractive it inevitably is at first, but once drawn in, we find ourselves no longer free agents but are at the mercy of a force seemingly beyond our control. 

It's interesting that he closes the book with the words of Jesus recorded in John's gospel chapter 8,
'And you will know the truth and the truth will set you free'
It's perhaps ironic that those who do not to claim to be followers of Jesus Christ regard some of his teaching as oppressive and constricting, when in reality he offers his followers true freedom. As Jesus said in another place,
'If the Son sets you free you will be free indeed' (John 8.36)

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Community shops

Good to visit Itteringham Village Shop this morning. It's just 15 miles from Norwich and 11 miles from Cromer. It's a great example of a community shop, and in fact was the first winner of the Community Shop Awards organised by the Plunkett Foundation which exists to support rural communities though community ownership and advice.

We were served by a very warm and helpful older man. In the tiny corner of the shop we were able to enjoy coffee and croissants and the dinky little Post Office in another corner, was open. There was a thoughtful  collection of stock, from fresh meat and veg (all sourced from maximum of 30 mile radius), dental supplies and local beer.

When communities function well how much better it is for everyone. But how can such community be reproduced in our larger towns and cities.? Perhaps this is where local churches can play their part, and be an example of disparate people working together for the common good.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

The secret of leadership

Jesus is a fascinating figure and he had some ideas that wouldn't easily find a place in the 'Business and Mangement' section at Waterstones. So when discussing leadership and authority with his close followers, who were beginning to position themselves in anticipation of Jesus' death, Mark gives us this interchange, (Mark 9)
33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?”34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
In his helpful little commentary, Dick France observes,
Rather than looking for greatness, they should be eager to be at the bottom of the pile. Rather than aiming to dominate others, they should aspire to be the servant of all.  The object of their ambition should be not influence and authority but usefulness (my emphasis).The greatest is the least and the leader is the dogsbody.
Yes,  it's very hard to work this out in everyday life, and even more difficult for church leaders, but I think France's comment about 'usefulness', gives us a helpful way in to the nature of Christan leadership.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Where did you get that from?

Many is the patient who, when offered a prescription by me, replies with a, 'Oh no, my friend says....' And then proceeds to tell me why that particular prescription is not a good idea, because of side effects or lack of efficacy etc. But it's not only patients who repeat baseless 'facts'. In the current NHS there is a myriad of guidelines, protocols, proformas which are generally not challenged despite their someimtes flimsy foundations.

One interesting area is the subject of fertility and the associated figures that are banded about. There's a great little article in the August edition of The Atlantic Monthly, entitled,  How long can you wait to have a baby. As a 30 year old and entering a second marriage, Psychology Professor Jean Twenge from San Diego State University,  didn't just have an academic interest in the subject,
My new husband and I seemed to face frightening odds against having children. Most books and Web sites I read said that one in three women ages 35 to 39 would not get pregnant within a year of starting to try. The first page of the ASRM’s 2003 guide for patients noted that women in their late 30s had a 30 percent chance of remaining childless altogether. The guide also included statistics that I’d seen repeated in many other places: a woman’s chance of pregnancy was 20 percent each month at age 30, dwindling to 5 percent by age 40.
Every time I read these statistics, my stomach dropped like a stone, heavy and foreboding. Had I already missed my chance to be a mother?

Unlike most of us who just accept what we hear, Twenge used her professional skills,
As a psychology researcher who’d published articles in scientific journals, some covered in the popular press, I knew that many scientific findings differ significantly from what the public hears about them. Soon after my second wedding, I decided to go to the source: I scoured medical-research databases, and quickly learned that the statistics on women’s age and fertility—used by many to make decisions about relationships, careers, and when to have children—were one of the more spectacular examples of the mainstream media’s failure to correctly report on and interpret scientific research.
The widely cited statistic that one in three women ages 35 to 39 will not be pregnant after a year of trying, for instance, is based on an article published in 2004 in the journal Human Reproduction. Rarely mentioned is the source of the data: French birth records from 1670 to 1830. The chance of remaining childless—30 percent—was also calculated based on historical populations.
In other words, millions of women are being told when to get pregnant based on statistics from a time before electricity, antibiotics, or fertility treatment. Most people assume these numbers are based on large, well-conducted studies of modern women, but they are not. When I mention this to friends and associates, by far the most common reaction is: “No … No way. Really?”
The remainder of the article is a model of lucid and helpful information. Her summary advice, which seems sensible to me, is
No. 1: fertility declines with age. No. 2, and much more relevant: the vast majority of women in their late 30s will be able to get pregnant on their own. The bottom line for women, in my view, is: plan to have your last child by the time you turn 40. 
I guess I should be reading the BMJ or Lancet, but every now and then , a journalist takes the trouble to challenge the status quo and brings clarity and challenge to an oft repeat mantra.

Learning from Eddie

I've commented before on the tender love that longstanding sports  hack and natural world lover, Simon Barnes, has for his Down's syndrome son Eddie. He doesn't mention him often, but a lovely piece in todays Times caught my eye,

Shocking news -- an addition to the half-century of family traditions of Cornish holidays. Eddie, my younger son, has taken to walking.
This being Eddie, it is a fiercely individual take on the concept, one that resembles normal ideas of walking as much as our rambling games of garden cricket resemble the game they play at Lord's.
I'm not sure how much of this is Down's syndrome and how much the singularities of his own nature, but it's a great thing in every way.
Physical exercise is hard for him because of the lax muscles of his condition but the pleasures of a stroll in dramatic circumstances have come to him at the age of 12. We set off most mornings with his grandfather's dog Bessie and take a walk to a spot that's as dramatic as anywhere on the British coast. It's a good half-mile away, a damn good effort.
But once there, seated on our rock, looking out over a slope of heather and gorse that hits the Atlantic with a bravura burst of granite, we take our time. A good long sit, with Eddie and I both using binoculars to see what the world has brought us this morning.
A stare out to sea usually produces a gannet or two: "Got 'im!" Eddie says, and sometimes he actually has. Staring a mile or so out, I also found Manx shearwater a couple of times, dipping decisively seawards. There was sometimes a wail of kittiwake. Above our heads the gronk of ravens, passing overhead, one always followed by the other. "Got 'im!"
I still experience this cultural ambivalence when reading about disability. On the one hand our culture increasingly idealises disability and disability rights, whilst on the other, assumes and affirms the basic human 'right' of abortion on demand and antenatal screening tests to 'eliminate' disability. I certainly don't underestimate the challenges of bringing up a disabled child, but oh for some honesty in the debate.

Barnes ends with a touching note on what disabled children enable us to see. Speaking of Cornwall,
This place with its strong views has affected Eddie very deeply. Once installed on the rock with the cliff's inhabitants going about their daily duty, he's been happy to stay there for an hour or more, sometimes eagerly watching, sometimes slipping into a reverie, at other times engaging me in the complex system of Jokes that keep us going. Walking at Eddie-pace brings revelations denied to the hurrying walkers who pass us intent on their destination.

Monday, 12 August 2013

There's no substitute for experience.

Just enjoyed reading Alistair McGrath's new biography of C.S. Lewis. Lots of helpful detail, with particular insights on Lewis's various publications throughout his carer. McGrath provides helpful context as well as notable features. I was particularly struck by the contrast between The Problem of Pain, written by Lewis in 1940, and A Grief Observed written in 1961. The contrast is a classic observation about the difference that personal experience brings to our understanding and appreciation of the affairs of life.

The Problem of Pain was Lewis' first Christian apologetic book. It contains the famous quote,
'God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains. It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.'
However as McGrath points out,
'The Problem of Pain tends to treat pain as something that can be approached objectively and dispassionately. The essence of pain is presented as an intellectual puzzle which Christian theology is able to frame satisfactorily, if not entirely resolve.'

Some 20 years later and within a year of the death of his wife, Joy Davidman, Lewis entered what McGrath calls an 'emotional firestorm'. Out of that experience Lewis wrote A Grief Observed.
'While Lewis undoubtedly recovered his faith after his wife's death, A Grief Observed suggests that his faith was some distance removed from the cool, logical approach to faith that he once set out in The Problem of Pain.'
Later in Grief Oberved Lewis expresses the longing that many a parent or spouse will felt deeply-the desire to bear the suffering of the other.
'Lewis's line of thought is that this is the mark of the true lover-a willingness to take on pain and suffering, in order that the beloved might be spared its worst'
Lewis realises that this is generally not humanly possible, but his thoughts irresistably pass to the crucified Christ,
'It was allowed to One, we are told, and I find I can now believe again, that he has done vicariously whatever can be done.' 
Twenty years had moved Lewis from a primarily academic and theoretical knowledge of the theology of pain, to an awareness of the magnitude and vast effects of both human suffering and the cross of Jesus Christ.

Christian books are churned out in their hundreds (? thousands). Many written by fairly young writers. I guess they will say some useful things, but more often than I suspect they realise, it would be better to write from a more 'lived' position.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Nosy doctors

I saw a pleasant man today. He was about my age and as he walked in the flash thought  went through my mind that he looked somewhat parkinsonian. It wasn't a full thought but just one of those millisecond impressions that one gets from time to time. If I was to analyse it I guess it would be an impression of his slightly laboured waking with slight stooping of the shoulders.

As I always try to remember to do, I had quickly looked at his notes before I called him in. There were no ongoing health concerns and he hadn't been seen for over a couple of years, so there were no clues as to his reason for attending.

"I was at a folk festival a couple of weeks ago" was his opening gambit. No clear thoughts entered my mind. Had he had a fall, taken illicit drugs, had casual sex, or been close to a very loud speaker (all except the first very unlikely, this is folk not Glastonbury!).

"A guy came up to me in the interval and said that he had seen me earlier (I'd have been little unsettled at that point), and asked me if I knew that I had Parkinson's disease. He told me he was a GP and suggested that I see mine as soon as possible".

My patient was a little taken aback, not so much by the diagnosis as the rather precocious behaviour of the doctor. And I shared my patient's reaction. I really don't think it is up to me to casually approach members of  the general public with what are known as 'spot' (nothing to do with the skin) diagnoses. I don't know the patient's context, I've no idea how much anxiety I might cause and I might be wrong!

The only situation I have decided in advance when I might approach a stranger and suggest a diagnosis would be if I was behind someone in a queue and noticed a likely malignant melanoma on the skin.  I would justify this intrusion on the genuine likelihood that if the patient ignored the mole in question, it could literally be fatal. So in the case I really might be saving a life. That's hardly analogous to sharing a diagnosis  that may not result in a treatment for some time and merely might induce anxiety and solve nothing.

Colleague keep quiet.


Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Jess Ennis and me

It's often amused me that even top athletes performing at premier events still wear a piece of paper bearing their number held on their shirt by a safety pin! At least in one sense I am on a par with the great Jess Ennis.

I was reminded of that this week when I saw a photo of her in the paper with the disappointing news that she is injured and will not be able to compete in the World Championships this summer.


When I think about the extraordinary scope of Christianity and the wonderful levelling effect of the entry requirements, I'm genuinely moved. No qualifying standard required, no crossing of the palm of the entry panel, no heats and then the final, no, just an honest acknowledgement of my need of God's grace, that I have and do fall short of God's glory, and that only through Jesus Christ do I have a hope and substitute. It's an old truism but I'm grateful for it, 'the ground is level at the foot of the cross'.

A light touch

Just pebbles Its great to be back in the Hebrides. Although lots of rain is forecast this week, yesterday was a pleasant surprise. So we...