Tuesday, November 04, 2014

I love reading with a four-year-old...

Sometimes I see comments online (or even hear them said in real life) to the effect that it's so difficult to read to a small child, because they keep interrupting and it's impossible to read 'properly'. I usually respond that this is what it's supposed to be like - the words and pictures in a young child's book are the starting point for imagination and discussion, not something to be sat through and endured.

And since I had the privilege of reading to one of my favourite small people this morning, without further ado I present an approximate transcript:

E (nearly four-and-a-half) asked me to read 'Mister Magnolia' by Quentin Blake, after a couple of other books. I hadn't read it for a while and it's not too long; I was happy to oblige.

Me: 'Mister Magnolia, by Quentin Blake.'

I turned to the first familiar page and read the classic catchphrase that recurs throughout the book:

Mr Magnolia has only one boot. 

E: And a stripy shirt
Me: Yes, he does, but the words don't say that.
E: What do the words say?
Me: Mr Magnolia has only one boot.
E: You should say 'BOOOT' (said in a high-pitched tone).
Me: Mr Magnolia has only one BOOOT.  No, that sounds silly.
E: Read the words.
Me: I've read all the words on this page.
E: You didn't read the words on the other page.
Me: They're not very interesting.
E: Read them!
Me: Okay. Text and illustrations copyright 1980 Quentin Blake. All Rights Reserved. First published in Great Britain 1980 by Jonathan Cape Ltd.... are you sure you want me to continue?
E: Yes!
Me: (several more lines about where the book was first published in various countries)
E: Now the other page
Me: You know what it says.
E: It should say Mrs, that's a girl
Me: No, it's a man. Mr Magnolia
E: That long word, that says Magnolia
Me: That's right. And 'M-R' says 'Mister'.
E: I think it says OOT.
Me: Well the last word does if we cover up the 'b' at the front. Then it says 'Mr Magnolia has only one oot'.
E: You covered the 'b'
Me (uncovering it) Yes. That word says 'boot', so if I cover up the 'b' it says 'oot'
E: Turn the page!

Me (with relief) He has an old trumpet that goes rooty-toot--
E: That's a guitar case on the floor. So he must be a girl.
Me: Boys can have guitar cases too
(Brief digression involving other members of E's family about people of both genders whom we know who play the guitar, eventually agreeing that a guitar case could be owned by a man or a woman).
E: Why does he keep a trumpet in his guitar case?
Me: Ah. Good point. It's not a guitar case, it's a trumpet case.
E: It looks like a guitar case
Me: Yes, it does, but it's not really the right shape.
E: And Mr Magnolia has only one boot
Me: True, but it doesn't say so on this page.
E: Turn the page

Me:And two lovely sisters who play on the flute --
E: They are girls
Me: Yes, they're his sisters so they must be girls
E: I know they're girls because they have long hair. This one is VERY long
Me: True, but boys can have long hair. And girls can have short hair...
E: They're not very pretty
Me: No, and their dresses are too long. If they stood up they might trip over.
E: Do they have any boots?
Me: I don't know. We can't see their feet because the dresses are so long.
(Brief digression as we all discuss the possible footwear, or lack thereof, which the sisters might be wearing, and a comment about Quentin Blake's drawings always looking that way, and discussion about whether or not the sisters are actually lovely.. mention, too, of the cups of tea and biscuits shown in the picture, and whether they could eat biscuits while playing the flute...)
E: Next page!

Me: In his pond live a frog and a toad and a newt --
E: Which one is the newt? (points) I think that's the frog (pointing at the toad)
Me: No, the one squatting down is the toad, I think the other one is the frog.
E: Hmmm.
(I turn the page)

Me: He has...
E: Why are those birds making holes in his suit?
Me: Because they're parakeets
E: Why does he have them?
Me: I don't know. I don't think he should: that cage is too small for even one parakeet, and there are four of them in the picture.
E: Read it!
Me: He has green parakeets who pick holes in his suit --
E: What's that word? (points at the long one)
Me: Parakeets. A very useful word to be able to read...
(E's mother points out that it's at least phonetic)
(I turn the page)

Me: And some very fat owls who are learning to hoot --
H (E's six-year-old sister, who was busy doing something else) What is 'hoot'?
H&E's mother demonstrates hooting
E: But Mr Magnolia... go on, read the rest!
Me: But Mr Magnolia has only one boot.

By this stage, I was eleven pages into a book which - if read straight through - would only take about a minute to read, and we had been reading and discussing it for at least ten minutes.

I did finish the rest of the book rather more quickly... although we had further discussion about what a salute is, whether the dinosaur was realistic, and why it was raining.

Not every book is discussed this extensively - I think this is the longest we've ever taken with this particular one! - but this is the kind of conversation that makes reading aloud to young children so very enjoyable.

<--- and this is a link to 'Mister Magnolia' on Amazon UK, just in case anybody who reads this post is wondering what happened at the end of the story, or would like to have a copy to read to their own small child.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

You are what you read?

I was tagged on Facebook by a friend who had listed ten books that 'stayed' with her. The challenge was not to think hard or come up with great literature, but to list, off the top of my head, ten books that had affected me in some way.


Only ten books!

We own about three thousand, and while I freely admit that I am unlikely to read some of them again (and at least a few hundred are thrillers which I don't suppose I'll ever read) I feel most comfortable when I am in a house with plenty of books. When I know I will never run out of things to read. I keep a couple of hundred unread books on my Kindle, too, just in case.

I think, if I absolutely had to, I could reduce my books to around one thousand, so long as I knew that the rest were going to good homes. But even that would be difficult. So many good books, so many wonderful authors. Even if I don't re-read a book in its entirety, I may well dip into it again.

But it was a challenge I could not resist. I certainly wasn't going to write about the first ten books that came into my head; I wanted to make sure they really had influenced or affected me in some way - that they had genuinely 'stayed' with me over the years.  So I started jotting down a few titles...

Taking my cue from the old 'Desert Island Discs' radio show, I decided to assume that the Bible and the entire works of Shakespeare can automatically be included, so I wasn't going to list either as part of my ten. The Bible has affected me more than any other book; or, rather, collection of books - it's kept one volume, usually, but is 66 books in all. Some of them are very short, and some have influenced me a lot more than others. John's gospel and letters are probably the ones I would choose if I had to pick just a few.

As for Shakespeare, I'm not an unqualified out-and-out fan, but several of his plays have stuck in my mind and I love watching them; Shakespeare coined so many phrases that we're all affected by him regularly.

I thought more about the insistence that I should choose books should have STAYED with me. I decided that, for that to be the case, they must be books which I first read at least 20 years ago. So that excludes Philip Yancey's 'What's so Amazing about Grace?' (and all else he's written), JK Rowling's Harry Potter series,  Susan Howatch's 'Glittering Images' (and sequels), plus Wayne Jacobsen and Brian McLaren's books - all of which will undoubtedly stay with me and be re-read in the future. These books have affected my philosophy and worldview within the past twenty years and I'd recommend them to anyone. I make no apology for the Christian themes (overt or otherwise) for all the above. (Links are to my book reviews blog).

When I started thinking about books that had influenced me profoundly, I really wanted to include the original 'Good Housekeeping' cookery book, which we were given as a wedding present and which I still refer to, even though it's falling to pieces (and even though I have an updated modern version - which is still good, but completely different). But something had to go, so I decided to limit my list to fiction, if I was to have any hope at all of choosing just ten.

Below is the list I posted, in roughly the order in which I first read them. I decided to see which of them I had read in the past 16 years and thus reviewed on my book blog, and was a little surprised to find eight of them - some of them I read more than once, even in this timeframe. I think that underlines just how much these books have, indeed, stayed with me. As for the remaining two, one is too short for a book review on my blog, and one of them is long out of print and unavailable.

1. The Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton - this is the earliest book I can recall reading, when I was about five or six. I was - well - enchanted by it and its sequels, and re-read them many times. This book introduced me to fairies and fairy-tales, dreams and wishes, and the concept of good triumphing over evil. (They're not at all politically correct, but I didn't notice until I read them aloud to my sons many years later).

2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis - I suppose I was about six or seven when I first read this. Maybe younger - it's a book that's always been on my shelves, along with its sequels. I do know that the first time I read it, I took it all at face value as a wonderful adventure story. A couple of years later I read the whole series again and had an amazing 'aha!' moment as I realised that it was all connected with God. I'm so glad I discovered that for myself, and that nobody tried to explain the allegories to me.

3. Margaret and the Currant Bunny by Edith Elias - I read this book almost every summer from the time I was about seven; it was on the shelves in my bedroom at my grandparents' house; an old book, even in the 1960s. It sent shivers up my spine but I couldn't resist it. I wish I knew what had happened to it - it's apparently impossible to find a copy of it now. Maybe I would hate it as an adult. But I've never forgotten it.

4. The School at the Chalet by Elinor M Brent-Dyer - This is another book which I initially discovered at my grandparents' home, along with about fifteen of the sequels. I was perhaps eight or nine when I started reading these; I already loved Enid Blyton's Mallory Towers books, but there was so much more depth in the Chalet School series. I was thrilled to find the entire series (over 50 books!) in the library at my secondary school. The first book isn't my favourite by a long way; it's a bit slow-moving and I'd recommend new readers to start with the second. But it was my entry into the wonderful world of thinking, discussing, interesting education. The books also reinforced the importance of honesty and authenticity, and close families; it also helped me understand good sportsmanship. I wanted to be Joey Maynard when I grew up.

5. Gemma by Noel Streatfeild. I'd read 'Ballet Shoes', of course, and various others by this author, but I think I was about ten before I came across 'Gemma' and its three sequels, and was totally captivated. Wonderful family stories, even if they do include the typecast highly gifted children!

6. Mystery at Witchend by Malcolm Saville. Again, the first of a series and not my favourite of the 20 'Lone Pine' books; but it was the introduction to yet another world of friendship mixed with loyalty and love.

7. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte - We had to read the first two or three chapters of this for English homework one weekend when I was around 14. I started reading.. and couldn't put it down. I emerged, starry-eyed, when it was time for lunch and kept reading afterwards. I asked for a copy of my own for Christmas and re-read it many times. It was my favourite book for years.

8. An Old-fashioned girl by Louisa M Alcott - I'd read the 'Little Women' books, but came across this lesser-known teenage novel by the same author when I was about fifteen. I fell in love with it and have read it many times.

9. The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass, age 37 3/4 by Adrian Plass - I first read this shortly after it was published in 1987, and it was the first book ever to make me laugh out loud on almost every page. It pokes gentle satirical fun at the silliness of some (all right, a lot of) Christians, and yet is incredibly thought-provoking at the same time. I became an instant Plass fan, and have read all his other books, but the first one (which STILL makes me chuckle when I re-read it) has a special place in my heart.

10. Dogger by Shirley Hughes. I first came across this when a friend's small daughter borrowed it from school - so although it's a children's picture book, I didn't actually read it until around 1990. She read half of it to me, and I read the rest to myself later; it was so lovely, it brought tears to my eyes. I bought it for my sons, and read it to them - difficult without choking up - and gradually they grew out of it. But it's one of the picture book I've kept, and when I got it out to read to small friends in the past few years, it made me cry all over again. I love all Shirley Hughes' books, but 'Dogger' is, I think, my all-time favourite picture book.

So - that's ten books, all of which influenced me in some way, all of which have reinforced positive character traits and the importance of family and friends. I think that's probably why they stood out in my mind; a couple of hours after writing the Facebook update, I think these are still the ten I would choose.

As I was writing my list, I did remember many other books that have been important to me over the years. As a child, I loved the Paddington series by Michael Bond, AA Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh, The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham, books by E Nesbit, Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery, and many more. In more recent years I've discovered and enjoyed the 'Sophie' series by Dick King-Smith, and the series starting with 'Saffy's Angel' by Hilary McKay. And I suppose if I want to be literal about a book staying with me, I should also mention 'I had trouble in getting to Solla Sollew' by Dr Seuss, which I used to read nightly to my sister, and can still recite, pretty much, from memory.

But while I read and enjoyed all those books, and others, I don't think they affected me on a deep level as the ones on my list did. Having said that, I should give a special mention to 'Treasures of the Snow' by Patricia M St John; I first read that when I was about six and it had a profound influence on my life and my early Christian faith. It certainly affected me as a child, in a far-reaching way; but I haven't read it in a long time, and didn't think of it until I'd finished my list. Perhaps I should re-read it soon.

As a young adult, I enjoyed books by Georgette Heyer, and PG Wodehouse, and Rosamunde Pilcher; these were my stepping stones from children's fiction into books intended for adults, so they are significant in that respect; I've discovered many great authors in the past thirty years or so. But I haven't been influenced by fiction as an adult nearly as much as I was as a child. But then, my core values and beliefs were mostly formed by the time I was in my twenties.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Attributes of God and the Enneagram

Much of what I have been reading recently has reminded me that EVERYTHING that is good and true is of God. That includes theories, books, songs, art (etc) which are created or invented by atheists or those of other faiths. God made us all, and gave us different talents and abilities, and there is something of God in everyone, whether or not they acknowledge it.

(There is a corollary to this, concerning that which is not good or true, even if created by devout Christian believers... but I am not going there. Not today, anyway)

The Enneagram is a system of understanding people's personalities at a deep level, with patterns of growth for each of them. It's used by some in the Catholic Church, and has significant spiritual insights. Unsurprisingly it also has its critics, mostly those who dislike the fact that it's used in Sufi tradition, and may have some Pagan origins. The symbol itself tends to look a bit suspect at first glance, but an Ennegram is simply a nine-pointed star, and is used as a visual representation of the nine main groups of people as described by the Enneagram.

I don't enquire as to the belief system of those who built my computer, or my kitchen appliances; I don't reject chairs and tables because they undoubtedly had some of their origins and development amongst Pagan cultures. If something is good and right, then it is, at least to some extent, of God.

I've read several books about the Enneagram, some of them specifically from a Christian perspective. It's not as simple to grasp as the more popular Myers-Briggs system, as there are no dichotomies; to make it more complicated, the root of each Enneagram type is our deepest besetting sin, and many of us really don't want to acknowledge what's at our roots. So we learn to behave like other people, and often relate strongly to another type until we are honest enough with ourselves to peel away the outer layers and look at what's in our hearts.

Online tests are notoriously inaccurate in their results; there are many which attempt to pinpoint Enneagram types, but I think probably the least bad is the Eclectic Energies test. Unfortunately, I don't really like the rest of that site, or the descriptions. But if you find your most likely type (or types), then the 9 Types site has a pretty good set of descriptions of each of them, although inevitably nobody will fit 100% with any, and many will relate to three or four of them, at least to some extent.

I can still relate quite strongly to five out of the nine types, even though I'm certain now, after many years of study and discussion, that my actual type is the Nine.

All of which is introductory to something I read recently in the book 'Enneagram II' by Richard Rohr. He mentions that we don't just have a self-image and besetting sin that fits with our type, but we also tend to have specific views of God that tie in with our Enneagram types. And while each of them has some truth, they are very limiting, and can lead to a false view of who God is.

That led me to think in a new way about the different names and attributes of God which are sometimes mentioned in hymns, songs and prayers. Sometimes these pass me by - I know intellectually that they are all true, but I mentally shrug.. to me, God is always present, always loving - which is true. But not the whole truth, apparently. It was quite chastening to read that the false image of God for type Nines is: "...a quiet, constant, unquestioned Presence...".  

I wanted to insist that this was true, and far more significant than the God-image for the other types... and yet it began to make sense as I read on, with the recommendation to believe in a more active God who might ask me to do something, might want me to experience great joy, or even righteous anger. 

So now, when people - or songs - mention different names or attributes of God, I'm mentally assigning them to one or more of the nine Enneagram types. And suddenly I can see the value of these different aspects of God.

As a very brief summary of positive traits and images:

  • Type One is the perfectionist, always wanting to do what's right in everyone's eyes. Ones will tend to relate primarily to God as the Judge, as all-seeing and holy. 
  • Type Two is the Helper, meeting people's needs, usually generous and warm-hearted. Twos will tend to relate primarily to God as Love, as the one who provides for us. 
  • Type Three is the Achiever, full of energy and self-confidence, determined to get things done. Threes will tend to relate primarily to God as Creator, who gets things done.
  • Type Four is the Romantic, the classic artistic temperament, able to see and create great beauty in life. Fours will tend to relate primarily to God as Artist, and reach out to him in darkness. 
  • Type Five is the Observer, the detached and usually intelligent researcher. Fives tend to relate primarily to God as the 'Logos', the all-knowing supreme intelligence.
  • Type Six is the Questioner, who is totally loyal and committed, concerned about many things. Sixes tend to relate primarily to God as Refuge or Rock, as the one who offers security and salvation.
  • Type Seven is the Adventurer, full of energy and optimism, often a risk-taker. Sevens will tend to relate primarily to God as Light and Life, as the giver of joy. 
  • Type Eight is the Asserter, who stands up for the weak, and leads with courage. Eights will tend to relate primarily to God as King, as all-powerful and mighty.
  • Type Nine is the Peacemaker, who seeks harmony and sees all points of view. Nines will tend to relate primarily to God as omnipresent, showing mercy and giving peace. 
Caricatures, undoubtedly. The Enneagram is so much more, and can't be summarised properly, even in a much longer article, as it has immense depth.

But still. It made me ponder. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Paths and Fields

I'm not the kind of person to learn things step by step. I tend, on the whole, to observe, ponder, read, ponder some more and gradually assimilate understanding. Sometimes a paragraph in a book, or something I notice will trigger an 'aha!' moment - a light in my brain which illuminates something I had not quite grasped before, or maybe a trigger which enable everything to move around a little, fitting into a better place. Either way, it's not a linear or arithmetical process.

Right now, my mind is swirling with the concept of paths, of many different paths leading towards - or, indeed away from - God. That doesn't mean I've become a relativist, or that I think all religions are equally valid. I believe, absolutely, in the one God, Creator of the universe, as revealed in the Bible and through Jesus. Indeed, I can say with confidence the full Nicene Creed, something which is recited in one form or another in the Anglican Church in which I grew up, and to which I still feel significant affiliation.

I also believe that every human being is a unique individual: a complexity of ingrained God-given personality, of circumstances, of culture, and so on. Which means that each of us is on an individual path through life, at different stages, and often going (or apparently so) in different directions. I am aware that there are those who deliberately turn their backs on God and walk away, knowing perfectly well what they are doing. I don't know what will happen to a person in this deliberately antagonistic state if they die unredeemed. I can't bring myself to believe in the kind of 'hell' popularised by Dante; I'm more inclined to CS Lewis's view that even after death there may be the opportunity to turn to God, but that those who rejected God in life will probably continue to do so forever.

Sadly, there are many who have turned their back on God without really understanding what they are doing. Perhaps they misheard or misunderstood the message. Perhaps their childhood was so fraught with tragedy or abuse that they cannot accept a loving God reaching out to them. Perhaps they have been put off by the rigidity of some Christians who claim that there is only one possible path to God, and that anyone who doesn't join that one path is doomed to eternal punishment.

Or perhaps they see Christians being intolerant, selfish, gluttonous, self-righteous... all those sins which were condemned in the Bible every bit as much as the more obvious carnal sins, but which are a lot more difficult to measure.

I don't know what will happen to people like these when they come face to face with Jesus. But I know that God is love. It's not for me to judge, either those on the path away or those (including myself) who may have contributed to the direction in which they are going. My task is to share what I know of God who loves us all.

But what of those who are aware of God's love, whether or not they realise who God is? What of the many and diverse styles and doctrines and cultures even amongst those of us who attempt to follow Jesus? Should we who are within the Body of Christ attempt to tell our brothers and sisters in Christ how we see things, what we believe they should and should not be doing? What happens two people who love God, and can genuinely recite the Nicene Creed, have diverse views about - for instance - whether or not women should be allowed to be church leaders, or how long it took God to create the world, or how parents should raise and educate their children?

I wrote recently about the importance of acceptance, of what we see as 'normal'. We change through our lives, and most of us accept that others change too. We don't expect a great work of art from a two-year-old experimenting with crayons, or a best-selling novel from a six-year-old typing a story onto a computer. But we do expect progress.

Sometimes, though, we have to go backwards before we can move on. If I type quite fast with two fingers but want to learn to touch type, I will have to slow my pace quite significantly before I can learn a new method. If I want to revitalise a garden which has been neglected over many years, I may have to pull up many of the plants that are growing there, to get rid of some of the used soil, to fertilise and remove stones, and leave the ground fallow for a while before I can start growing new plants. When we make bread, we let it rise... then punch the dough down, apparently undoing all the good that the yeast has done, before kneading some more and letting it rise again.

In addition, not everybody has a passion for gardening, or typing, or drawing, or bread-making. We have different talents, different 'callings', different ways of relating to the world in which our primary concerns are to love God and to love other people. So I may demonstrate God's glory by my artwork, and bake bread for my neighbours; you might worship God through music, and babysit for your friends and acquaintances.

Books about personality types stress that there are four (or nine - or sixteen - or whatever the system happens to be) broad categories of people, ALL of whom are valuable. We can all learn in different ways, but one style will come most naturally to each of us. We all have a variety of talents, but only one or two are likely to become our passions. We all make mistakes, miss opportunities, think negative things... but we each have one deep-rooted sinful tendency, which we may not even recognise. We can criticise each other, ignoring our own problems, or we can acknowledge our inherent sinfulness and reach out to others, and to God, in love.

So there are many paths, many ways we can move towards God during our lifetimes. I'm seeing the concept of 'different paths' in many places, with the kind of synchronicity which nudges me, prompting me to be increasingly sure that this is from God. I see it in the local church: your current path might be Anglo-Catholic, his path Greek Orthodox, her path evangelical charismatic. If it's where God has called each person, then that is the right place, at that time, for that person. If God is currently calling someone out of a local congregation, then that is a right path too. Nobody has full access to the truth about God or about worship; we are, as one speaker put it, tiny parts of a stained glass window which, as a whole, reflects a fragment of God's glory.

A few years ago, talking with friends about God's plans and purposes, we realised that it's important not to take the concept of a path too strictly. God does not control us like puppets on a string; we make our own choices in life, and that's part of maturing. As parents encourage their children to spread their wings, to follow their own dreams, to make their own decisions - even if they turn out to be bad decisions - so God gives us our senses, our intelligence and our experience to help us to grow.

So while there is a path each of us, albeit meandering, ahead of us is something more akin to a field. It has boundaries over which we should not stray, but within that field we can go in any direction we like. Sometimes Christians get very stressed about guidance: offered two jobs, which one does God wants us to take? Which car does God want us to buy? Which supermarket does God want us to shop in....?

Undoubtedly God cares about every detail of our lives, and it's fine to pray, to consult God about anything, no matter how trivial. But having done so, if there is no sense of guidance, and no clear Biblical reason not to do something, then I believe that it's fine to take whatever option appeals.

Even if our choice turns out to be a mistake, God does not become angry. We may have to deal with negative consequences - if a car turns out to have multiple problems, for instance, or if we find personality clashes in a new job - but that does not mean that our decision was 'wrong', or even that a different one would have been 'right'. Nor does it mean that we are abandoned. God works with us where we are, as a parent picks up a toddler who falls over, and reaches out a hand to help a child who stumbles.

Even if we go against what God told us, our heavenly Father will never leave us. If a child in a field wants to pick blackberries, the parent might warn him to be careful about the nearby nettles. That will not stop a careless (or curious) child from walking into the nettle patch, and then suffering the consequence of being badly stung. No loving parent stands with arms folded saying, 'Well, that happened because you disobeyed. If you want me to help you, you have to do what I tell you to do.' A good parent rushes to rescue the child, probably risking being stung too, and looks for dock leaves or something else that will ease the child's discomfort, offering hugs and reassurance. The child does not need to be told that he did something stupid: he knows that perfectly well.

It saddens me when I meet people who seem to be hemmed in by fear, convinced that if they step aside from a narrow path, they will - like Little Red Riding Hood - be eaten by a hungry wolf. Yes, Jesus talks about a narrow gate - see Matthew 7:13. Elsewhere, Jesus talks about himself as a door or gate - see John 10:9. I saw a dramatised explanation of this in a children's assembly many years ago, when an elderly clergyman formed several children into a fence with a gap, allowing other children (representing sheep) to go in and out. At night, we were told, it was dangerous for sheep to be out of their pen so in New Testament times a shepherd herded his sheep into their pens, then lay down to block the gap.

The gap was narrow, and anywhere other than the pen could indeed lead to destruction. But the sheep did not have to worry about anything other than going where their shepherd led them. Once in the pen - through the 'gate' - they were free to wander where they wished, to eat whatever looked appetising.

Jesus is the only 'gate', and we need to walk with him, in the place where he wants us to be. But as in a nurturing family, there are many options every day, and Jesus - in the same passage as the one about being the gate - promised us life in abundance, in stark contrast to the thief who wants to steal and destroy.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Normality and judgement

I once said, semi-jokingly, that I don't feel judgemental about anything much, other than people who are judgemental. I can tolerate anything except for intolerance. I suppose it's part of my built-in personality type that I tend to look for common ground with everyone, and am always interested to see alternative viewpoints. My concepts of 'normal' are inevitably coloured by my upbringing and culture, and I find it interesting to learn why other people do things differently.

When moving to another country - or returning to one's home country after living abroad - it's all too easy to make negative comparisons, but when one is fully adjusted (as far as that is ever possible), it becomes clear that most of what people do in public is neither right nor wrong - it's cultural. Table manners are an obvious (and, I hope, non-controversial) example. How we set the table, what implements we use (if any), how we eat... these are not moral issues, but conventions which vary, sometimes within a country as well as when living abroad.

But if someone criticises this kind of thing, I become quite defensive. And yet, feeling critical about differences is basically another kind of personality trait; perhaps grounded in insecurity, but not necessarily wrong. It may be based on ignorance - a misunderstanding of 'normal', or an over-blown sense of 'right' in this sort of context.  So if someone comments that X is using the 'wrong hand', or 'eating messily', I want to stand up and explain that in their culture it's quite acceptable, even normal, and that the person making the criticism is equally weird to people from elsewhere.

That's not a particularly helpful attitude on my behalf, but when the issue is table manners, it's minor. If I can point out, gently, that we all have our own cultural expectations and conventions, it may help someone to be a little more aware of the wider world. Then again, it may also make the other person defensive, or even cause them to feel that I am criticising their culture or choices.

Still, most people can accept - and perhaps experiment with - different foods or styles of eating. If we move to another country, we may even adopt something that feels awkward at first (chopsticks, perhaps, or dipping bread in a communal bowl) but which soon becomes second nature.

But 'normality', to each of us, is far more than conventions at mealtimes. We have worldviews about - for instance - rights and privileges, medical care, education, nutrition, the origin of mankind, discipline, religion and faith. We may learn these overtly from our parents, we may absorb them from our environment, we may learn them at school, or from our peers. They change, as we grow and mature, too; or as different circumstances prompt us to re-think where we stand, what we believe in.

A few weeks ago, for instance, I wrote a post about home education. I tried to keep the post balanced, but inevitably, due to our experiences here, I am generally positive about home education. I am aware that it does not work for everyone, and that a few people may use it as a cover-up for nefarious activities or neglect. However, my worldview on the whole promotes education at home.

It wasn't always that way, though. When we moved to the US in the early 1990s, I had never come across home education (other than the governess/tutor style in historical novels). At that point, I assumed that institutional education was not just normal, but right - that parents needed to be involved in schools, to be sure, but that teachers were the professionals and that children needed peer interactions, group discussions, and so on.

I went to school, after all, and - on the whole - liked it. When challenged, I did admit that a lot of it was a waste of time, and that fifteen years later I didn't remember much of what we learned. But still.. school was, in my worldview of the time, 'normal'. And, I thought, that was right and good. The people we met in the US who 'homeschooled' spent a lot of money on private curricula, and the parents could never take a break. Surely, I thought, it would be a disaster....

Yet the homeschooled children I met were actually normal, likeable young people with a lively interest in learning. Gradually I developed an admiration for parents who would do this, and mild envy that they could afford it. I was still convinced that a curriculum was necessary, that teaching had to be formal, that only the most compliant children could satisfactorily learn in this way. My husband - who hated his schooldays - felt that since he had to suffer school, his children probably should, too. How else, he asked, could they learn to deal with the tedium of adult work? It was an odd, false logic, but I was too unsure myself to insist, despite our older son having a terrible time (and learning almost nothing) in his school.

Fast forward to Cyprus, and we not only started home educating, we learned to love it, to see the value of both formal and informal learning, of curriculum where appropriate, and unschooling/eclectic education the rest of the time. I'm now a tremendous advocate of home education and it's hard, sometimes, to remember that many (perhaps most) people are at the stage I was twenty years ago. And it's not that I'm 'advanced' in my education worldview. I also know of people who at one point were adamant that home education was the only way, but who gradually discover that their children (or at least some of them) flourish in a classroom environment.

That's just one example of core assumptions; of what we perceive as normal and 'right', but which can change - even reverse - as circumstances dictate. When we are open-minded, we can listen to people whose views differ, perhaps learn from them, and perhaps teach them something too. Unfortunately, human nature in general is inclined to keep tight hold of whatever is our current normality, and try to impose it on everyone else.

It's a fine line, and one which I'm still thinking through. We're experimenting with vegetarian eating during Lent (with exceptions on Sundays and other 'feast days'). I'm inclined to be veggie anyway; if I lived alone, I doubt if I would ever eat meat. But my husband has - as so many others do - some kind of built-in need to eat meat. This isn't just craving, say, a steak, or some tandoori chicken, and it's not dislike of beans or lentils. It's the feeling, after two or three days of veggie food, that meat (ANY kind of meat) is needed.

I don't have this need at all. Two weeks into Lent, I have no inclination to eat any kind of meat, even on Sundays. Worse (from the perspective of the family) I find myself almost taking on board some of the things that veggie or vegan friends have been saying about meat-eating for years, which I have previously pushed aside. Vegetarianism is already feeling more 'normal' (because I like it) and suddenly I have an urge to distribute recipes, to experiment with different ways of cooking beans and lentils, and - not so good - to discover all the potential disadvantages inherent in meat-eating, so as (I suppose) to consolidate my position.

Yet, I recognise that there are many people who, apparently, need to eat meat. After Lent, I will no doubt start cooking it again, and will probably eat it too, since I don't want to make life difficult for the various meat-eating family and friends who will entertain us in future. So, right now, I'm doing all I can to subdue the veggie agenda in my mind.

Then there's church.

Yes, that hot potato, that topic that keeps recurring on this blog, and in the writing of so many other people, in books and online. I've been attending weekly church services recently, and finding them fairly benign; I quite like the songs, I like seeing some people who I don't see anywhere else, and I like the walk on a Sunday morning. As a child, I took church-going for granted. As a young adult, I assumed it was essential for all Christians to belong to a particular local church. I don't think I was legalistic about it: to miss a service was acceptable due to illness, or exhaustion, or even on occasion having to do something else. But on the whole I liked going.

Nowadays I still acknowledge that we are part of the church (both universal and local), and that the purpose of the church is to encourage and build each other up, to exercise our gifts, to reach out to others who are part of the Body. And, of course, we should offer ourselves continually to God. I just don't find Sunday morning services to be a good place to do these things. I find the proximity of other people quite draining, the monologue of a sermon rather annoying (and sometimes sleep-inducing) and the singing of familiar songs, more often than not, means that my mind is miles away.

But still, so many people - particularly church leaders - insist that it's important, even vital to be present at these weekly gatherings. They put them on a par with prayer and reading the Bible...and I don't get it. I don't mind church services. I'm happy that other people benefit from them. I recognise that for many, communal singing is a form of worship, and that a sermon may teach them something about God, or inspire them to be closer to him during the week. That's great. But these things don't apply to me (or only rarely). I would feel like a misfit, were it not for the many others around the world feeling the same way, expressing their views far more vocally than I do.

And I want to stay open. I recognise that church gatherings - like school education - can be good, and right. Maybe for the majority they are a good thing. I just wish they would not try to impose them on those who find God to be closer outside of church gatherings. Guilt-tripping about anything - whether church meetings, or nutrition, or politics, or morals - makes people angry and inclined to rebel.

At least, that's how it works for me.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Of the Church, but not in the Church...?

For the first forty-five years of my life I went to a church service every Sunday without really questioning it. Sometimes I went to two services. Okay, so there were odd occasions when it wasn't possible: if I were sick, for instance, or if we were travelling on a Sunday. But basically if we moved, or even went away on holiday, the question was not, 'Shall we go to church on Sunday?' but 'Which church shall we go to?'

I suppose at some point during my childhood I realised that not everybody belonged to a church, but I don't recall what I thought about it. Church - or, more importantly God - was part of my life. I knew that each local expression of church was part of the worldwide Body of Christ - or the Church Universal - and on the whole I quite liked it. Even if I did sometimes find it all a bit pointless. Not God, but the church service bit.

Then 2006 rolled around. Lots of people around the world, it seemed, were starting to question the validity of local church congregations. Or, at least, questioning their necessity. I wrote a post about this - What is Church anyway? - after we had been reading on the topic and discussing it with friends. My husband had moved from the church we had been attending for some years (for a variety of reasons) and at the time was attending a more charismatic one. I wasn't comfortable with it, and didn't want to give up the place where I felt at home. One of our sons had left home by then, the other attended the local Anglican congregation. So three of us attended three different services on a Sunday.

It didn't seem like a problem. Sometimes my husband didn't go at all - he worked far too many hours during the week, in a Christian organisation, and needed to sleep on Sundays. Church services did not recharge or energise him; they made him feel as if Sunday mornings were the lowest spot of the week. Eventually he decided not to go at all (other than a few special services), due to some specific doctrinal issues where he disagreed, and which were considered essential for membership. He wanted to stay in fellowship - and friendship - with the leaders, and was concerned that if he stayed, listening to talks which he disagreed with (if he didn't fall asleep) then he might end up with conflict.

I totally understood. We both have the "NF" (Idealist) temperament, so harmony in relationships is essential to us. Friendship is - and always will be - far more important than doctrinal agreement.  I've written about this before - about Church and temperament, and about how neither of us is anti-church. And gradually, I also stopped going to services every Sunday.

However, I didn't want to give up entirely. I do quite like having a focus on Sunday mornings, at least some of the time. I quite like a lot of hymns and Christian songs, and I like keeping in touch with people I care about. For a while I would go perhaps once a month to the local Anglican church, and once a month to the local non-denominational community church - the one we belonged to for many years when we first moved here. At least, once a month was my aim. Sometimes other things got in the way, and during the Summer it was simply too hot for me to walk home in the heat of the Cyprus sun. I tried it once, I think in mid-June, and spent the rest of the day - and the following day - debilitated by migraine.

And so, I started this post some months ago, thinking about the phrase Christians often quote, that we should be 'in the world but not of the world'. I've heard talks on this, mostly stating the obvious: we are not to avoid people or situations outside Christian circles - we may have 'secular' jobs, or neighbours, or even family. We are part of the environment and society around us, and yet at the same time we have another 'world', that of God's Kingdom.

The actual words are not stated in the Bible exactly like that: they are paraphrased, or perhaps summed up from John 15: 19  where Jesus said that he had chosen the disciples 'out of the world'. By implication, Christians have generally seen this as applying to the entire Body of Christ. The idea of being 'worldly' had implications of materialism, or loving the world more than God, caring too much about the approval of other people.

However, the phrase is regularly used, and I started thinking about the worldwide church, which I am a part of. And it struck me that I could reverse the phrase: to be 'of the church, but not in the church'. I feel that a local body of believers should be able to embrace those who are undoubtedly part of God's kingdom, even if they do not attend Sunday morning services.

But life  - to use another oft-stated Christian cliché - has its seasons. I'm seeing these increasingly as referring to repeating cycles, like the traditional seasons of the year.  I would prefer another word for longer-term roles: we don't have a 'season' of childhood or hands-on motherhood - those are periods of life with a beginning and an end. However, we do, perhaps, have seasons when we love to gather on Sunday mornings, and seasons when we really don't.

I've just started reading a book by Brian McLaren called Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in Twelve Simple Words, which talks about seasons in the Christian life where things seem simple, complex, confusing, or in harmony. I haven't read very far yet, but it makes a lot of sense. As we progress through life, and faith, some things seem very straightforward at first, then as we learn more, we realised they are extremely complex. We start to grapple, perhaps, with contradictions, or confusions; we discover that different people have radically different answers to questions - it's all quite perplexing. And gradually we find a sense of harmony, of peace, as we come to terms with it.

It was useful to see this in terms of local church commitment. It was so easy as a child, then it became more complicated as I realised how many different styles of church service there were. I became perplexed - should we stay with this one, or move to that one? We made the decision eventually, and peace reigned for a while. Life was simple again, until further complexities arose....

And so the seasons come around, varying in lengths and intensities. I've been perplexed about the whole question of church attendance for some years now, never giving up entirely but unwilling to commit to any of the local congregations fully. I am still very dubious about the idea of official 'membership', which implies a rejection of other local expressions of God's Kingdom on earth. But I can see myself gradually being drawn back to the congregation I was once a regular part of: most of the people have changed, the style has become more lively, more charismatic. It's hard for me to worship God through song - Gifts of Affirmation are not one of my love languages, But perhaps there's something important for me to learn.

I don't think I will ever enjoy sermons, or understand why they are necessary; they rarely say anything much, and I often find my mind drifting away, even though I don't actually fall asleep. But many in the church consider them important, even the focus of the meeting. They are unlikely to go away, but at least they are briefer than they used to be. And less noisy. When a preacher shouts, I switch off entirely and feel very stressed. But when they talk about God's love, with perhaps an anecdote or story, that's okay. I guess someone in the congregation needs to hear that message on that particular day.

I've heard from time to time that for each person God will have a 'gem', or perhaps a 'golden thread' in each service - the line of a song to give us goose pimples, or an encouragement from the front, or even something new to think about. I wouldn't go as far as to say that I always find it - or even that I mostly find one. But if I decide to attend church services regularly again - whether every week or every other week - I shall make the effort to watch out for the golden thread.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Thoughts on home education

This post - Homeschooling and Bigotry - from a long-term email friend got me thinking again about our reasons for home education, and how I see the whole educational process, from my current perspective several years after our sons have grown up.

I too find it sad that there's sometimes bigotry (often founded in ignorance) about home education, but then some home educators are equally negative and judgemental about schools. I think the problem is that each 'side' (if there must be a side) can feel threatened, needing to justify their own decisions which - in many cases - apparently means taking a negative viewpoint towards those who think differently.

This kind of thing happens in all kinds of circles and relevant to a wide range of topics... I've seen Baptists condemn Anglicans and Anglicans condemn Pentecostals and Pentecostals condemn Catholics, and (here in Cyprus) Greek Evangelicals condemning Greek Orthodox... and Greek Orthodox condemning pretty much any Protestants. Much of the rhetoric is based in ignorance, and - inevitably - the occasional truly negative example of whoever it is they are arguing against this week. It makes no sense to me that, we can't all agree to differ on doctrinal issues and love and respect each other as Christian brothers and sisters with different preferences in worship, and different understandings of some doctrines.

That's a whole other issue, of course, quite irrelevant to home education. But if even those claiming to follow Jesus (supposedly known by our love for each other) cannot speak nicely and with respect about those with different viewpoints, I don't think there is much chance for the mostly secular world of home educators and school adherents. Yes, I know that in the US many of the pioneers of homeschooling were fundamentalist Christians, but in the UK the reverse is true - most are, for want of a better word, secular.

So, looking back on our years of home education, and pondering on the people I've met, I suppose I can make a few general statements, but they're mostly just my own opinion - anyone is free to disagree.

Research regularly shows (and yes, I read a couple of articles very recently) that young children learn the most through positive interactions with parents, and a wide range of play activities. In countries where formal schooling does not begin until children are six or seven, with minimal homework, they almost invariably do better academically in the long run.

(See, for instance, 'Give Childhood back to the children'.)

Sadly, in the UK and elsewhere, the emphasis seems to be on school at a younger and younger age, with increased work to do at home in addition to seven hours in the classroom. When my first son started school, aged just five (22 years ago now) there was no expectation of pre-school or nursery education. He had been to playgroups, and did actually go to an informal nursery school when he was four, but it was only a couple of hours each day, and the focus was very much on learning through play.

The school he went to was small and friendly; the Reception class was mostly play-based too. They were assigned reading books based on their interests and abilities, and the classroom teacher did short sessions of phonics, or handwriting, or basic number/shape skills during the day, but they also did a lot of guided play - handling play money in a toy 'shop', for instance - and plenty of art, craft, music and sport. The teacher or classroom assistant read aloud to them regularly.

Nowadays children are expected to go to a nursery school - often full-time - from the time they are three, and National Curriculum work begins almost at once. Yes, there's some play but it's much more guided, and there's little time for imagination and free play - things which, in my view, children should be having at home, not in a classroom environment.

All of which is to say that, when parents decide to keep their children out of school for the first few years, I would support them wholeheartedly. There is absolutely no reason for any kind of rigid structure at this age, or formal learning. A few years ago my younger son started training as a classroom teacher in the UK... until he discovered some of the idiotic ideas the government are now imposing on classroom learning, with today's children as guinea-pigs. If there is an involved parent (or grandparent) at home, a variety of books and construction toys, and access to a library, pretty much any young child will learn a vast amount and probably learn to read (etc) without any formal instruction.

Note again the last sentence of the previous paragraph. A great deal depends on the parents and the home environment. If there are interested, involved parents, and if the child gets good food, and has time to play at home, and has adults or older siblings who answer his questions, then he will most likely do well, wherever he is educated. Parental involvement is hugely important at every stage of a child's life. Sadly, many parents are not involved, either fobbing their young children off with electronic devices (even tablets such as iPads, apparently) or sticking them in front of TV/DVDs.

I heard of one inner-city school where children started, aged 4, unable to form a complete sentence. Most of them had never been read to; some had hardly ever been spoken to. I suspect this is not a unique situation to this school. It seems intuitively obvious that children from educationally neglectful homes of this kind should benefit greatly from school. Indeed, few parents of this genre are likely to consider home education anyway. Yet, as someone working in the school commented, most of the children have no motivation, no interest in learning, no reason to care. If their parents were living on benefits, sitting around all day watching TV, why would they want anything different?

So that particular school provided breakfasts, and basic teaching of spoken language, meaning it was constantly 'behind' as far as the National Curriculum was concerned. The teachers did a very difficult, stressful job with few rewards. The small minority of children from what we would consider 'normal' homes found it very difficult indeed to learn anything, and were also be in danger of bullying - or worse. By the time these children were eleven, many of them were already sexually active - and there was immense pressure on those who were not.

So, while it's undoubtedly a vast generalisation, it seems to me that bright and motivated children and teens usually come from families where there is plenty of parental interaction in the early years, and lots of support throughout the growing years. Whether the children of loving, involved parents go to school or are educated out of school, they will probably do well.

However, it is vital to take a child's needs into account, at every stage. Everyone is unique; each family is different. Schools, too, have a tremendous variation from excellent through to appalling. Some children are well-suited to classroom education and structured learning; others are not. Some learn easily from reading and listening in groups; others do not. Some develop roughly along the government expected paths; others learn in different ways altogether.

I know of rigid home educators who 'protect' their children in a hot-house way, and I know of relaxed, encouraging home educators whose children blossom and flourish. Thankfully the latter seem to be the norm, at least in the UK, but they are far less likely to be singled out for media attention. I know of several families who choose to educate their children at home until they're at least seven or eight and who then use good schools (where they seem to integrate happily, without problems). I know of others whose children go to friendly local primary schools until they are 11, and are then educated at home for the teenage years, so they can follow their interests and avoid the negative side of peer pressure.

Rightly or wrongly, the home education movement is growing, at least in the UK. I'm on several mailing lists and Facebook groups, and get the impression that home educators are roughly divided between those who choose the lifestyle from the start, and those who remove their children from school due to serious problems; often this is bullying, but sometimes the child just isn't suited to a classroom environment.

There are some very worrying trends in today's internet-savvy youth. Negative peer pressure and bullying show no signs of decreasing; teenage depression is on the rise, teenage suicide higher than ever. I'm very sympathetic to parents who care enough to pull an unhappy child out of a toxic environment in the hope of providing something better.

However, I'm more of the mindset of those who see home education as a positive option rather than a last resort, even if there are good schools around. We rather fell into it when we moved to Cyprus; I had to overcome many negative preconceptions to see that education is far more than a school curriculum, and that it's entirely possible to learn all one needs to know without structure or formal 'lessons'.

One deeply-held misconception about home educators is that they are socially incompetent. There was actually some research done in this in, I believe, the 1990s; the result surprised even the researchers, as it showed that on the whole home educated children were MORE socially able than their schooled peers. They got along well with people of all ages, backgrounds and cultures and did not have the need to 'fit in' or be part of the 'in-crowd'. This meant that they were more comfortable in their own skins, and better able to make a good, natural impression.

Obviously there are always exceptions. Some children are naturally friendly and get along with everyone; some are natural loners, or socially awkward. I have met some of the latter who went through school, often badly bullied. Classroom 'socialisation' did not help them at all; it may even have made things worse for them. Asperger's Syndrome is more widely recognised than it used to be - and there are quite a few Aspies who are home educated, often because they had such a difficult time with school. To blame home education for their poor social skills rather misses the point.

Over the years we have met many home educating families, most of whom we have liked very much. We don't always understand or agree with all their methods, but we absolutely respect the right (enshrined in UK law) for parents to decide, preferably in conjunction with the children, how education should take place. I am firmly of the opinion that home education (at its best) is a wonderful option. But it's not for everyone. There are some excellent schools and many children thrive in them.

We parents have a difficult, often stressful job, and all we can do at any point is attempt to find what is best and right for our children at each opportunity as they grow up. I find it very sad when we can't all support and encourage each other, no matter what educational choices we and our offspring make. Let's not pass judgement on each other, based on a handful of negative experiences; just because you happen to know an awkward, ignorant home educated child (or, indeed, an awkward, ignorant schooled child) does not mean that he is like this simply because of the way he is educated.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The problem with the 'knowledge of good and evil'.

Sometimes, reading a book that may - or may not - be generally quite interesting, a sentence or paragraph will leap out at me. A lightbulb clicks on in my mind; I have an 'aha!' moment. Another little piece in the vast jigsaw of life slots into place. Or, at least, a possible place.

One such moment occurred this week, while continuing to read 'The Adventure of Living'.  Here's what I read:

This is in fact the meaning of the account of the Fall (Genesis 3): The fatal error of men is this very aspiration to be like God, "knowing good and evil," wanting to have a moral code, so as to be able to act on their own, without any further need of God to enlighten them step by step. This autonomy was the very thing which God refused to give to man, despite all the spiritual insight with which he endowed him. Autonomy is his undoing. When he claims to know of his own accord what is good and what is evil, he deludes himself and goes after success instead of seeking God. 
(The Adventure of Living, page 151, Highland paperback edition) 

You might ask what is so profound about that insight.  Of course the Fall was about mankind wanting to be like God. 

Years - probably decades - ago, someone asked me, with genuine confusion, how Adam and Eve could have known that it was wrong to disobey God, if at the point before they ate the fruit they had no knowledge of good and evil. Wouldn't that mean, I was asked, that they actually didn't know that it would be wrong to disobey God? 

I had no answer to this paradox.

Over the years, I've seen the story more as a metaphor than literal. Even if Adam and Eve were the actual two first humans, created as described in Genesis, the stories were passed down over many generations before they were actually put in writing. Some details may have gone astray, I thought, or perhaps there was something that hadn't translated quite right into modern English. 

I don't have a problem with difficult questions or paradoxes, although I no longer enjoy debating them quite like I did in my teens. God is God, and details of Adam and Eve's mindset before biting the fruit are long gone in the mists of time. Even if I could resolve this question, I didn't think it would make any difference to me, or to anyone else.

But here's a throwaway paragraph in a book putting it in a new light. It wasn't that Adam and Eve were entirely innocent, with no idea about good and evil. Those concepts are planted in the human mind from birth; while some conventions are of course cultural, we are all created in God's image. We know intuitively that some actions or thoughts are wrong. A child of about a year old knows perfectly well what he's doing when his mother says, 'No, don't touch' and he reaches out a hand, slowly, while looking to see if she's watching. He doesn't know why it's wrong, to be sure; but he's well aware that he ought to do what his mother says. In the same way, Adam and Eve  - who walked in the garden with God, and knew him intimately - were well aware that if he said 'Don't touch', then it was very important to do what he said. They didn't even have the excuse of being immature babies. 

So - according to Tournier - what the tree of the knowledge of good and evil represented was not just a general understanding of right and wrong, but a detailed knowledge that spelled out every single possible instance of right and wrong living, which would enable people to live without God. 

And then, despite knowing this story, that's exactly what the Hebrew Pharisees built up over the years.

God gave his people plenty of laws, some about relating to other people, some about hygiene (very useful in the days before germ theory) and some which, I have to admit, seem quite arbitrary, even bizarre. Maybe some of those are mis-translated - I don't know. But the Ten Commandments, perhaps the best known, make a whole lot of sense. Jesus summed them up: Love God, and love other people. 

But that wasn't good enough for the Old Testament pedants, who wanted not just general principles but exact details of what they meant. So God told them to keep the Sabbath holy, to make it a day of rest. A great principle - but people wanted to know what was meant by 'rest', and how they could avoid 'work', and what exactly was meant by 'work' in any case. Instead of seeing the Sabbath as a gift to be enjoyed, to take time with the family, to enjoy God's creation, to worship in a relaxed way.. they wanted to know what they could get away with. So more and more details were written down, with restrictions and limitations that God never intended when he said, 'Take a break once a week'.  

Around two thousand years ago, Jesus was walking on earth, helping people get things back in perspective. He demonstrated in what he said and what he did that God's law is a law of love, not of pernickety detail. It's right to do good on the Sabbath, irrelevant of whether the good deed might be defined in some rule-book as 'work'. It's right to love our neighbour, whoever he might be, and to help people in need, even if they are 'unclean' in some way. 

So, we have the benefit of hindsight in the Genesis story, and in the Gospel accounts. Surely we should get it by now...

But, in the paragraph preceding the one I quoted above, Tournier says:

The Biblical revelation gives us no guiding principle for our conduct beyond a few very simple laws such as that of honesty or love.
He is making the point that, even in the 20th century when he was writing, Christians wanted to turn the Bible into a rule-book. 

I think some people still do. I once heard someone say that in every situation or problem he has encountered, there are clear and specific guidelines in the Bible about what to do. I didn't even try to argue. I could have asked what the Bible says about a corrupt hard drive, for instance, or even about children fighting in the back seat of the car. He would probably have thought that I was belittling the Bible, or being sarcastic, although I was genuinely curious about what he might have said. 

But actually, I think I have a higher view of Scripture in believing that it gives us general principles, and the encouragement to seek the Holy Spirit to give us guidance in our specific circumstances. 

That's not to say that I'm a relativist. I do think there are some actions which are always morally wrong (such as violence or stealing), and some which are always bad for us health-wise (such as smoking). But in the vast majority of the decisions we have to make, day by day, we're not actually choosing between clear right or wrong actions. We have brains and hearts and experience to guide us, and we also have the Holy Spirit. The Bible is undoubtedly important as the revelation of God's love, but it is not - and should not be treated as - the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Living as an Adventure..?

I recently managed to get hold of a copy of the book Adventure of Living by Paul Tournier, which I had been looking for - off and on - for some time. I think it was Philip Yancey who recommended this book, but I may be wrong. It could have been one of my other favourite Christian writers. I don't recall why it was recommended either, so I had little idea what to expect when I started to read it recently.

It's about adventure.

I suppose I should have guessed, but had I done so, it might have put me off. For I am not an adventurous type. When I have done those Internet questionnaire things, or the 'Big Five' (or whatever it is) personality test, I usually score approximately zero on any categories related to risk-taking or openness to adventure.

When people talk about things they hope to do before they die ('bucket lists') or places they want to see, or new activities they would like to learn, I listen, and ponder, and shrug... and nothing really appeals. I'm comfortable with who I am, and where I live. Anything that involves risk is a big turn-off, as far as I'm concerned. Moving to Cyprus 16 years ago was a huge adventure which I really did NOT want to undertake... I'm glad, in retrospect, that we did, but I have no desire to move again.


Reading the book (and it's quite heavy-going in places) the author describes as 'adventure' far more than I would normally include in the term. He talks about creativity, and lifestyle changes, however small. He talks about passion, and doing things - particularly work - for its own sake rather than duty or routine. How sad it is, he says, that so many people find their jobs tedious, and have to do something exciting at the weekend, just to stay sane.

He describes his own excitement when he first took the risk of writing a book, and the thrill of being published, and the way that, as a beginner, he was cutting new ground. He says that he had a deep-set fear of getting stuck in a rut, of churning out books because he could, according to some formula that his publisher - and public - expected. He also looks at the way God calls people, in the Bible, and also today, and expects them to follow: any act of faith is essentially an adventure requiring risk of some kind.

When we're young, adventures happen anyway. New schools, new friends, new groups, new subjects to learn, new books to read, new games to play... we take it for granted. Then there's the adventure of falling in love, perhaps several times. Of going to university, perhaps, or looking for work; of applying, sometimes, for job after job, before finding a good match.  Then we have to find somewhere to live, and the huge adventure that goes with home ownership. And children - perhaps the most important creative adventure of our lives.

But when the nest is empty, when our children are grow and no longer need our creative input and care, when we're in a comfortable home with all we need and much of what we want - what then?

I started thinking about tiny 'adventures' that I have actually had and enjoyed in recent years: little acts of creativity, little forays out of the tried-and-tested. Trying out a new recipe, perhaps. Painting a room a different colour.  Reading a book by a new author. Writing a different kind of blog post, starting a new website, writing a short story and submitting it to a magazine. Joining a new group. Inviting someone different over....

All those probably sound rather dull and unexciting to those of a different temperament who thrive on risks and serious adventure, but it was quite revealing for me to see that these small 'adventures' are, indeed, a big part of what gives life its flavour. Quite often I avoid anything like this: my procrastination is often related to something that could, potentially, involve me in a small amount of risk.

But if I take none at all - if I remove all hint of adventure and risk of any kind from my life entirely, I will - if this book is right - stagnate.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

New Year Aspirations?

From time to time I have done the 'resolutions' thing, usually with limited success. I find they are generally either too specific  - so even one 'failure' essentially negates the whole thing and causes me to give up - or too general, so that it's hard to see any progress or change, and I tend to forget about them.

So I wasn't going to bother this year.

But I couldn't get over the nagging feelings that - as always - it would be good to be a bit healthier, to spend less time on Facebook, to get back to writing (something I tend to do in fits and starts) and to work on my long-neglected websites. I also felt quite frustrated that in the whole of 2013 I only managed to read 72 books. In 2012 I managed 90, and thought that bad enough. In previous years I aimed for more than 100. So, I thought, I would aim to read more in 2014.

Then I had the idea of 14 different general things to aim for in 2014.

But not resolutions. I wanted another word. The obvious one is 'intentions', but the road to hell is supposedly paved with good ones, and I certainly didn't plan on bad ones. 'Aspirations' is the best I could come up with.

Yes, they're fairly general. That leaves plenty of room for interpretation and flexibility. And no, I'm not going to list them. This is more of a meta-post about why a new year seems so significant to so many people. We're now five days into 2014, and I've already finished reading two books (though admittedly both were started in the last week of 2013, and neither was long). I've even worked for a few hours on one of my websites, and done about 6000 words of writing. I'm trying to get through my 'to-do' list each day rather than continually procrastinating, and so far have mostly succeeded.

For five days.

I'm told it takes about 30 days to develop new habits, so January is as good at time as any to come up with new habits - whether exercising, or eating differently, or writing, or whatever it happens to be. Five days is a sixth of that. Can I continue until the end of the month? I hope so.

Which doesn't begin to answer the question of 'Why January?'

Advent Sunday is officially the start of the Church's new year, but - at least for me - it would be a very difficult time to start a new habit, or come up with anything other than a focus on Christmas. Even keeping it very low-key, mostly organised before December, I was aware of the build-up, the anticipation, the things to do so that I could take a few days to relax and try to remember Jesus, born in poverty, for our sake.

Lent is another time for new beginnings, although it's usually thought of as a time to give up bad habits temporarily. Lent has forty days, so theoretically a new 'good' habit could be formed in that time, but for many people, as is traditional, the end of Lent signifies a return to indulgence and excess.

September is the new 'academic year', at least in most of Europe and North America. I remember having good intentions at the start of each school year, determined to study more, to take my education more seriously. I usually gave up by about the end of the first week. I like Septm

The Chinese new year will be celebrated at the end of January. I suppose February could be a good time for a new set of new 'resolutions' for those who fell at the first post on January 1st.

And that brings us back to this time of year, when so many people resolve, 'this year will be better'. Perhaps it's just the tidiness of starting a new calendar. Or the hopeful feeling that comes as the days start getting longer after the winter solstice. Or maybe it's just tradition...

So, I will probably continue having new ideas, hopes, intentions, yes, even resolutions at the start of each new year.

But as I've grown older, I've become more aware that  - in a sense - it doesn't actually matter if I don't keep them. God loves me anyway. He loves me even more than my closest friends and relatives do. A whole order more, in fact. He runs out to meet me when I turn to him, and he forgives my greatest sins and failings.

He has done all that already... so while I know that it's good to follow his leading, and spend my days constructively, and look after my health, these and other 'good intentions' are indeed a potential path away from God if I see them as anything more than useful ideas, from which I can deviate if God has something more important.

And even if I fail in every one of my hopes for 2014, even if I am unhealthier, lazier and even less productive a year from now, God still loves me anyway.


The irony is that, free to be fully myself, free in the knowledge that I am not bound by any laws or traditions or requirements, I am actually a whole lot more likely to follow God's leadings and promptings.