My best books of 2019

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At the start of 2019 I set myself the target of 50 books this year.  The glorious invention of Audible makes that possible, but it would still mean doubling my 2018 total.  I have to confess I only managed 40, but there have been some inspiring and intriguing reads along the way.  Here’s my run down of my top 12, in the order I read them (apart from the last!)

  1. The Hacking of the American mind – Robert H Lustig.IMG_3690

When John Mark Comer mentioned this in passing in his excellent podcast ‘This Cultural Moment’, it’s topic intrigued me.  Lustig, a Medical Doctor,  explains the difference between the two neurotransmitters, Serotonin and Dopamine.  I’m not qualified to explain the science, but basically our body’s production of Serotonin is linked to contentment and Dopamine is linked to pleasure (reward).  I’ve spent a lot of time this year contrasting joy and happiness and Lustig’s explanations have been very helpful.  Key highlights: (a) The danger that big business uses our addiction to dopamine for marketing, but causes mental health challenges. (b) The 4 ‘C’s which produce Serotonin; connect, contribute, cope and cook.

2. Johannes Hartl – Heart Fire.IMG_3694

Any book full of stories that build faith that consistent intercessory prayer brings change and ignites a passion to pray is a good book.  Hartl is primarily a story teller and shares an adventure into deeper relationship with God and establishing the Augsburg House of Prayer, using key questions about prayer to navigate the story.  Hartl is a Roman Catholic, his church culture and worship traditions are very different from mine, but as he shares his encounters God’s power and love, those contrasts become refreshing and grew my heart for unity.

3. Covenant and Conversation, Genesis – Jonathan SacksIMG_3691

My next top read was someone a step even further outside my culture and tradition, the masterful, extraordinary Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.  I actually read 3 of his books this year (Not in God’s Name and his Daily readings of Exodus as well as this one). Each chapter is a reflection on the weekly readings of the Torah.  I just love the way he thinks, writes and understands the world, Sacks is such a big-picture and clear thinker, wonderfully wise, deeply rooted in scripture.  His summaries are hugely quotable with majestic statements about the world, rooted in a deep faith.  Reading Sacks has grown my understanding of Judaism and love for the Bible.  He enabled me to rediscover Genesis in such a fresh way that we did an autumn preaching series on it.

4. Greater Things – Paul Harcourt/Ralph TurnerIMG_3692

As someone with a leadership role in New Wine I felt obliged to read this book before United (our summer conferences).  I’m so glad I did.  The story of NewWine captures the early fresh excitement of growth and life as the Holy Spirit was welcomed anew into churches across the UK and a family with a shared encounter grew through loving healthy relationships.  The book nicely balances anecdote, history and reflections on what God has done, linking various parts of NewWine together.  It also helpfully shares some of the story behind our core values and gives a steer for the years ahead.  I found my hope for God’s Spirit to transform the church in England (& beyond) grew as I reflected on the story so far, knowing that its a story we’re living in, that has only just begun.

5. How to Pray – Pete Grieg (Audible version)IMG_3687

I nearly didn’t listen to this one, proudly thinking “I’ve read 30+ books on prayer and it looks a bit basic”.  But 3 things changed my mind.  I was introducing Pete’s seminar at New Wine United, my 11 year old wanted to listen to it and I’m writing a book on intercession myself, so wanted to read what’s live in the church right now.  In the end Pete became my daily companion on my dog walks through the summer and I adored this book.  As we saw in Red Moon Rising and Dirty Glory, Pete is a masterful story teller, a humble inspiration and quite simply a gift to the church.  This book is very accessible to brand new believers, but has theological depth for those who have sought to know God for decades.  Once again, the fruit in my life from reading this book has been enlivened faith and greater intimacy with God.

6. The second Mountain – David BrooksSecond Mountain - 1

At another New Wine United seminar, Anita Cleverly, quoted the first paragraph of this book. ‘Every once in a while, I meet a person who radiates joy.  These are people who seem to glow with an inner light.  They are kind, tranquil, delighted by small pleasures, and grateful for the large ones…’  I was hooked.  Having read Richard Rohr’s stunning book ‘Falling upwards’ (twice), in my early 40s,  the first half/second half of life thesis is one I find helpful.  Brooks is a skilled writer, (a New York Times columnist).  He grabbed my attention with a vision of a better world and the intrigue of answers to the immaturity of our culture. With skilful broad brush strokes, intricate anecdotes and personal vulnerability his exploration of vocation, ambition, relationships and changed priorities is full of wisdom and faith.

7. Dissolution – CJ SansomDissolution cover

Audible has changed my life! I’ve listened to 174hrs of fiction this year (10 novels) I tend to only read paper novels on holiday and listen through the year. My wife Nells loves this, I’ve cleaned up the kitchen so much more now that I can ‘read’ whilst I’m doing it.  I’ve chosen just one, which is the first in Sansom’s Shardlake series having seen so many people reading them on trains.  I now understand the hype.  Shardlake is a very empathetic character, there’s enough history to feel you learn something, ecclesiology to make me ponder and plot to keep you gripped.  Every now and then a book makes me want to wash up, just so I can hear what happens next.

8. The Ruthless elimination of hurry – John Mark Comer IMG_3688

This was published in the States a day before the UK, and I was in New York, so just to amuse myself with the irony, I rushed out to buy my copy late at night before the UK release. (I was rewarded, the USA edition has a lovely red cover).  I’ve enjoyed all John Mark’s books, and found this even more readable, relaxed and accessible.  He diagnoses the issues of hurry in our culture, challenges the grip of tech on our lives and points us to Jesus for restored ways to live.  A great deal of this I’d heard him teach before at New Wine and on podcasts, but I needed to hear it again and integrate it into my life.

9. The Spy and the Traitor – Ben MacIntyreSpy and Traitor cover - 1

Utterly brilliant!  A thrilling biography of Cold War spy Oleg Gordievsky, working deep in the KGB, spying for British intelligence.  The story is beautifully told, with an expert balance of biography, intrigue, psychological insight and dramatic tension.  Very different from most books I read/listen to, this also had me washing up, or longing for my next long car journey.

10. Failure of nerve – Edwin FreidmanIMG_3689

When enough leaders you respect are quoting a book, you start to pay attention.  I’d come to realise that Freidman’s work is seminal in contemporary understanding of leadership and his phrase a ‘non-anxious presence’ appears all over the place.  His opening analysis of the mess of contemporary culture had me turning back to the inside sleeve multiple times to check when he wrote it (it was first published just after his death in 1996).  Friedman brilliantly analyses our ‘quick fix culture’, and is piercing in his critique of reactivity, herding, obsession with data and blame.  Like many good leadership books, I was delighted to see someone diagnose the issues of our culture with such clarity.  Friedman’s proposal is that leaders need to combat the underlying anxiety of our society and do so through ‘self-defining’.  There are times for me he pushes too far towards a free reign for leaders being narcissistic autocrats, (maybe based on my negative experiences of such leaders) so this needs careful reading, and comes with a health warning of taking to extremes, or using to self-justify.   But as a corrective to the ills of our society and call to clarity and courage in leadership, there is inspiration here. (But if you want to justify being a narcissistic autocrat, then please read the Bible instead of this!) 

11. Ambition – Emma InesonIMG_3682

This book was only published 3 weeks ago.  Emma has brilliantly captured a key issue in the church today.  We want to be strategic and envisioned, we want to see growth and fruit, without throwing away the core humility and surrender which scripture teaches us.  I loved reading a book by a leader who works in a church and tradition I am familiar with, addressing issues I can so easily identify with.  (I found her reflections on the Green report, ‘talent pool’ particularly intriguing, but that’s another blog).  Emma writes in a winsome, honest and non-anxious manner, her use of parenthesis and inverted commas is very witty.  The final chapter on the beatitudes beautifully brings us back to core values taught by Jesus, it cut me to the heart, challenging my selfish ambition, whilst releasing me in peace at how God created me.

12. The BibleNLT cover

Always my first read of the day, the foundation of my life and lamp to guide my path.  I try to read it cover to cover every year, I’ve lost count but aiming for 50 times through in my lifetime.    This year I chose the New Living Translation, which I’ve found very readable.  It’s not my place to review God’s Word, suffice to say, it is the foundation of my life, the true revelation of God’s character and day after day He uses it to speak, to direct, correct and make sense of the crazy world we live in.

Because he rose

He is risen

I love stories! I devour novels and whilst I respect beautiful, poetic language, it’s a good plotline that makes me want to hide in a quiet place and keep reading.

Part of the joy of a story is the climax moment, just a few pages before the end of the book, when everything comes together and the various strands of the story connect.  We finally find out who did it, the couple finally disclose their love for one another and kiss in the moonlight, the villain is humiliated.

We can describe the events of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, death and resurrection in Jerusalem at Passover in AD33 as ‘the Easter story’.  I’m nervous about that phrase, in case calling these historic events a ‘story’ makes them sound made up, but the real life story of what happened is the climax of the story of the life on earth of the Son of God, Jesus.

This year in my preaching at St Chads, I’ve talked about stories a lot.  In our Living Free series, we’ve seen that our identity is found in God’s story and not the scrappy first drafts of the stories we tell ourselves.  And whilst God’s story spans from before creation into our eternity with him, the events of that weekend in Jerusalem are the key moments in that story. They, more than anything else, define our story too.

The world in which we live tries to make sense of life through a whole range of other stories.  Evolutionary biologists tell the story of natural selection, how millions of years of survival shaped what it is to be human.  (I keep meaning to ask one what the evolutionary advantage is of my hair no longer growing on top of my head, but my eyebrows finding a new gear of growth in my 40s!!). There’s the story of human progress, its fragility this week perhaps best shown by the Notre Dame fire, with the majesty of such a stunning a Cathedral built 800+ years ago, collapsing in one evening.  Or the story of political confusion, with egos battling for votes, appealing to greed and fear, and often finding fault instead of listening to constructive ideas.  Or the scary story of environmental crisis, with fossil fuels running out, plastics destroying oceans and the earth warming at a dangerous rate.  Or the myth of progressive tolerance, which has turned into bitter control of anyone in possession of different views.  These stories all have reality in them but they conflict in our minds, leaving us confused. And none of them answers the deep desire of our heart – to know God and experience his forgiveness.

The Easter story has one thing which none of these stories contains: Resurrection.

No humanly invented story of experience would include such a plot twist – death seemed like the end, but Jesus rose!  And his resurrection is more than the story of one man, one miracle, one empty tomb and some baffled Romans.  His story is our story. The God who created us on earth also created us for eternity. Humans gradually improving and then ecological or violence destroying is not the end of the story. Death, decay, devastation are not the end.  The great plot twist, Jesus rising from the dead, impacts how we read the earlier story and how we look ahead, knowing the story isn’t finished.

Because he rose. What he achieved on the cross was real.  The stain of sin is washed away, the gap between us and God is bridged, the enemy is defeated, sacrificial love is more powerful than selfish hatred.

Because he rose. Our future joy is real.  Life is greater than death, hope is greater than fear, and that heavenly banquet will taste amazing.

Cynicism or Sabbath?

Holy Saturday

“Joseph of Arimethea took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away.  Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there in front of the tomb. Matthew 27:59-61 

Waiting…

The agonising tension of not knowing, no rest without resolution.

It was the very worst Sabbath.  The day set aside for renewal, for family, for togetherness, for delight, for recovering peace with God, celebrating work completed, resting in trust, living in hope.  None of that seemed possible on that Sabbath.  The darkest day, ended at sundown, feeling like it might never rise, tomb sealed with a stone, death and evil had won, hope extinguished.

Recently when reading the Bible, I’ve attempted to engage in stories by remembering that when you’re in a story, you don’t know the ending.  Holy Saturday might be a sunny rest for us, maybe the first BBQ of the year. But it was far from Sabbath rest for Jesus’ followers. The women left sitting in front of the tomb had no idea of what would happen the next day. 

Waiting is painful, because our brains feed on the pleasure of resolution.  Think of that surge of happiness you feel when the last piece in a puzzle is found, you know a quiz answer, a story is completed, a phrase of music returns to the original chord, that is the pleasure of resolution.  At those moments of resolution dopamine in released in our brains, giving a pleasure sensation.  When things are unresolved, stories unfinished, children don’t return on time, phone calls or texts not returned, we live in tension.  Our craving for resolution leaves us uncomfortable.

Modern technology is training us to rush to resolution.  In our accelerated culture, you can sell anything that reduces the discomfort of waiting and brings quick resolution.  

God knows the end of every story, but loving us doesn’t always include disclosing his full plans when we think he should. He’s in charge, not us.

Because modern life helps us avoid waiting, we have no training for it.  When we are delayed, we rush to other ways to reduce the discomfort, one of which Is cynicism.  Cynicism is making up a negative story (usually with a dose of blame) to try and make sense of what we don’t understand.  That can be an easy way out from having to live with mystery.  

This Lent as a church, we fasted from negativity, including cynicism.  I’ve discovered that part of fasting from cynicism has been choosing not to have all the answers, not having to find a quick fix to those things that don’t make sense.

Sabbath is usually about resolution, ending the week by returning to God.  When God instated Sabbath in creation, it was because his work was finished on the sixth day.  When Jesus died on the cross, in the afternoon of the sixth day of the week, he too declared “it is finished”.  But until he rose, those he loved didn’t know what he had completed.  

Not everything is resolved in time for Sabbath, and so we find rest through trust. Choosing to leave what we cannot resolve in God’s hands ready for the start of the next week.  That Saturday must have been agony for Jesus’ disciples and the women who supported him.  They didn’t know the outcome of the story, they had no idea of the glorious history changing surprise that awaited them the next morning.

So how do we wait in trust and not cynicism?  

Are you in a Holy Saturday right now?  A situation that isn’t yet resolved, an illness that isn’t healed, a broken relationship where forgiveness isn’t forthcoming, or powerlessly waiting for a decision?

Cynicism seems like the easy way out.  Rather than wait for God’s resolution, it’s tempting to jump to create our own story, to think that knowing best is better than not knowing what’s going on.  But God has another way – the way of trust and not cynicism.  He does know the end of the story, his resolutions are better than we can imagine.  

The Resurrection teaches us that there is always hope.

Good Friday: Jesus and Blame

 

 “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth;  he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested?”  – Isaiah 53:7-9 

 

 “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.”  – 1 Peter 2:23

 

This weekend is a festival to celebrate the historic events which are the basis of our hope.  Today’s very name, Good Friday is the greatest expression of what it means to live in hope and not negativity.  We re-tell Jesus’ story of the Cross and Empty Tomb to remember that our sin is dealt with, we’ve left the grave and we live in Resurrection hope.  The very worst injustice – evil crashing down on the only fully innocent man.  Death and darkness become the source of hope when God re-tells his story.

 

As a church we have fasted from negativity through Lent, committing ourselves to intentionally abstain from criticism, cynicism and blame. A key part of our fast from negativity has been to fast from blame.  Blame is a means to defend ourselves, telling a story in which I am the victim and ‘they’ are evil.

 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: ‘Nowadays, to win sympathy for your cause, you have to establish your credentials as a victim.  This has overwhelming advantages.  People empathise with your situation, give you support, and avoid criticising your actions.  It has, however, three drawbacks: it is false, it is corrupting and it is a denial of humanity. A victim is an object, not a subject; a done-to, not a doer.’

 

We could call Jesus a victim. An innocent man was betrayed, falsely tried, lied about and executed. Yet he chose not to behave as a victim.

 

Amidst the many beautiful ways Jesus walked through the Easter story was that he never blamed anyone. He did not open his mouth, he did not protest, he didn’t lower himself to the identity of victim or defend himself by blaming others.  The very nature of the cross was him taking on responsibility for humanity’s sin and rebellion against God, which is the very opposite of blame.

Blame is the first step of revenge, something which Jesus taught us not to do. He didn’t retaliate, he made no threats.

More from Rabbi Sacks:

“When bad things happen to an individual or group, one can either ask, ‘Who did this to me?’, or ‘Given that this has happened, what then shall I do?’…So different are these questions that they generate two modes of being: respectively a blame culture and a penitential culture.  The first focusses on external cause, the second on internal response.  Blame looks to the past, penitence to the future.  Blame is passive, penitence active.”

This is the way Jesus lived, died and rose again.

It was tempting for Jesus to look to the past and blame those who did this to him. Jesus looked to the future at who he was doing this for.

It was tempting for Jesus make himself a victim, a passive object of evil.  Jesus chose to be active, defeating evil and overcoming death.

 

Inspired by our saviour, we too can live free from blame, not just for lent but for life.  When we see pain, mess, brokenness, we can live in penitence, taking responsibility for our part. Recognising that we contribute to that brokenness and knowing that, because of the cross, we can be forgiven and they are not the end of the story.

Christian award ceremonies?

 

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At 9am yesterday I was wandering around the Sant Marti hipster district of Barcelona sipping a flat white and enjoying some sunshine and the gentle buzz of a city getting going.

 

At 9pm I was in the city of London, in the oak panelled halls of a Livery company, sipping red wine and enjoying stories of bold innovative students sharing the good news of Jesus with their friends.

(being herded on a RyanAir flight in between was less fun)

The evening was the inaugural Student Mission awards, run by the Fusion movement.

An ‘awards ceremony’ for student mission … really?

Yes, that was my reaction.

Is ‘honour’ standing on a stage being cheered by the crowds or is it loving the person in front of you, regardless of any identity markers our world or our own choices place on us?  I believe it’s primarily the latter.  Jesus had some pretty harsh words to say about preferential seating (Mark 12v39).

Like everything, to understand this event, we need the context, not react to the headline.

Fusion were offered a generous gift of an evening using the Mercer’s Hall, right in the heart of London for this event.  It was a chance to tell the stories and celebrate the students in universities up and down the land, who are living radically, generously and full of faith, to bring the good news of the kingdom to their campuses.  These stories are inspiring, encouraging and profoundly counter cultural, they are good news and I’m up for shouting good news from the rooftops.  (You can read more about them here https://www.fusionmovement.org/sma)

fullsizeoutput_359f.jpegAs well as being a great party, like everything Fusion do, this was put together with joy, kingdom thinking and a passion to make Jesus the focus.  The student mission was rooted in local churches, but it was the stories of students themselves which were celebrated.  Over 100 stories were nominated, 40 shortlisted and there were awards in 10 categories.  Each winner has been offered a grant to empower these radical world changers to take more risks, develop new ministries and see more of their generation encounter Jesus.

I was on the judging panel of the event, I looked at every nomination and read their stories, saw their videos and discussed each one, I can’t remember any of their names this morning. (sorry winners!) – but I can remember their stories.

I can remember those who fasted, prayed, chose discipline to fulfil daily commitments to share grace and blessing.  I can remember those who put themselves out to pursue justice for the poor, those who offered constructive loving resources to help those with mental health, I can remember those who went out on the streets late at night, not to go clubbing, but to show care and listening support to those in distress from drugs, alcohol and broken relationships.  Those who found ways to discuss Jesus with their sports teams, invite friends to church and make new connections in order to listen and bless.
Celebrating these stories, and bringing people together to hear of the courage, commitment and contagious love of students wasn’t about creating celebrities or awarding success, but letting others know that those in our universities who let Jesus be Lord of their lives are making a real difference.  There are 25 million students in Europe, what can we as God’s church do to value our students and empower them to live out their calling now, where they can make the most difference?

An unreligious Christmas

angels-10One Christmas afternoon, in the midst of a present opening frenzy, (the bit before someone gets stressed by a missing present lost in piles of discarded wrapping paper) one of my sons hugged me thanking me for his present. ‘Oh, what is it?’ I asked. I hadn’t a clue what ‘we’ had given him.  That was when I realised, I was getting Christmas all wrong.

 

When I began teaching and writing on ‘hollow religion’, I used the image of a Christmas tree.  Something cut off from its roots, dressed up to look pretty, but now dead, sparkly but soon discarded.  I came to recognise so much of my Christmas had become like that. Many times, when normal life stopped for 2 weeks over Christmas, I had detached from Jesus, so absorbed in religious activity that I’d hardly talked with him.  I would enter the New Year drained or ashamed.

 

If Christmas gets religious, everyone misses out. Clergy families get burned out parents, congregations get absorbed with trivial non-essentials, non-believing visitors only experience  performance not presence.

 

One year I proposed to our PCC (semi-seriously) that we cancel Christmas because it was just hollow religion, they (more seriously and unanimously) rejected my proposal on the grounds that we exist to glorify Jesus so his birth is worth celebrating.  There have been many times in early January, during worship, I’ve suddenly had a sense of waking up again, filling my lungs with fresh air after weeks of spiritual fog.  I love those moments of reconnection with Jesus, like arriving at friends’ home to be greeted after a long journey.  But does Christmas have to be spiritually foggy? Do we have to ‘just plough through it’? – I am a redeemed grinch, a few years ago I wholeheartedly repented of hating Christmas, here’s how I’ve tried to live out Christmas without religion.

 

Focus on the best bits.   I absolutely love the joyful celebration on Christmas day with our church family.  I absolutely love watching people we’ve prayed for all year coming to church and hearing about Jesus.  I absolutely love the deep rich truths about hope and light in those familiar Bible readings. Take time to study how many times God speaks, miracles happen and angels appear in the early chapters of Matthew and Luke, it will blow your mind.

 

Book ends. Before Christmas begins, we have a ‘soaking’ evening, a night of pure worship (without any carols) to enjoy God’s presence and prepare for the season ahead by investing in connection with him and letting him speak to us.  In early January we make space in our worship to reconnect with God and receive his forgiveness where our priorities got messed up.

 

angels-8
Prayer and Mission.
  Amidst cultural change, still more people come to church at Christmas than any other time of the year, it’s a great time for mission.  To show generosity to our communities, and to initiate ways to take the kingdom outside church, (last year we left 600 knitted angels around Romiley and God used this little act of kindess to bless hundred – you can read about it here ).  To welcome people to hear the story of who Jesus is.  I’ve found all that mission activity shifts from busy burden to joyful anticipation when I pray.  We are blessed to live in a wonderful community, through school connections Nells and I have made many friends who don’t know Jesus.  Through November and  December I partner with the Holy Spirit in praying for them daily (he often has to remind me!). My heart explodes with joy when they turn up in church and I enjoy a moment of private celebration with Jesus.

 

Enjoy those private moments with God.  Christmas is busy and crazy and crowded, normal life stops but that doesn’t mean we lose connection with God.  There is amazing intimacy with those we love, of secret communication in the midst of a crowd.  I take moments of solitude in the midst of Christmas craziness, to stop and just enjoy being with God.  I thank him when things go well, I laugh with him when things go wrong, I ask him to show me little gems of truth afresh each year as I prepare talks.  I’m learning to walk through Christmas with my Father, rather than say “see you in January’ and get on with being too busy serving him (& the expectations of my parish).

 

Spiritual disciplines.  Like many, I was so helped by John Mark Comer’s teaching at New Wine  United week 2, in particular reshaping our lives around Sabbath.  This year I’ll be taking that into Christmas.  What preparations do we need to enable quality time detached from work?

Can I surrender and ask God’s guidance on when to feast and when to fast through this season?

 

Above all, enjoy celebrating Jesus.

Digging deeper seminar1 NewWineUnited 2017

Digging Deeper

From confusion to Peace

Pushing through negative emotions into God’s truth.

Roots through pain

How I’m feeling Trusting God

The Psalms – The Blues & gospel.

‘for me, its in his despair that the Psalmist really reveals the nature of his special relationship with God’ Bono

Your pain is not the end of the story

We can be raw and honest with God, because of his true nature.

We move from how we’re feeling to truth – through honesty.

What views of God – hinder total honesty with him?

Psalm 35

  • Crying out to God
  • The actions of the wicked
  • How the Psalmist feels
  • Truth & Praise
  • Hopeful outcome

Experience

Emotion

Assumption

(self)

Lie about God

wicked prosper

confusion

It’s not fair

God isn’t real

enemies mock

afraid

defend myself

God’s ways fail

silent heaven

abandoned

shame

God is

rejecting us

feel awful

despair

I’m empty/hopeless

Not there

 

What enables you to get to that place of seeing what you are really believing?

A simple process

  • What’s going on?
  • What am I feeling
  • What am I believing?

CHOICE

  • Lord please help
  • I remember when
  • This is still true

Screen-Free holiday

Trying to be Tech-wise.

Norfolk screens - 1We had a wonderful family holiday in at the end of May, great weather in the stunning Norfolk countryside.  What made this holiday special, new and challenging was our decision to go ‘screen-free’ for a week.

fullsizeoutput_242fInspired by Andy Crouch’s brilliant book ‘Tech Wise family’ – we chose to black out our  screens, and see what happened.  We have 4 sons, aged 13,11, 9 & 7, they all love screen-time and so do I.    We explained the plan to them, repeated that and then explained it again just to clarify.  It wasn’t the last time we needed to remind or clarify.

How did we get on?

The iPad, (which is only used to consume), stayed at home.  iPhones came for essentials: contacting family, checking weather forecasts (important in the UK in spring) and music in the car (to sing along, not just consume) – social media apps all deleted. Laptop came with us, but packed away.  We packed stacks of board games, books and every piece of sporting equipment we could muster.

Let’s get to the honest bit, we didn’t manage it completely.  We did great for the first few days, but the phones and chargers had to be hidden in innovative places and frequent reminders issued.  After 4 days, we wanted a bit of quiet down-time in the afternoon to read, so we gave the boys a gift of one hour screen time.  Later in the week we indulged in watching a film together one evening, (note together – screens separate us).  Our youngest still wakes up much earlier than I wanted to, so I might have given him my phone once or twice, so that I could have a lie-in.

Staying off social media was really easy, but cricket’s Champion’s Trophy was on and the trigger instinct deep within me to know the score was ever-present.  I maintained my rule of not checking my screen when with the boys, but found a few sneaky ways to score-check through the day.  Taking photos is a part of shared creativity with my eldest, so the discipline to then not spend the evenings uploading, editing and posting them online was challenging as we tried to justify that.

Caleb on phone screenI was really impressed with our boys, they responded far better than I anticipated. They discovered the reality of addiction and temptation and how powerful that can be. They discovered how much they escape to screens for easy entertainment.  They also discovered great skills in justifying ways to find and use screens.  We were all reminded that in a large family, fairness is grasped passionately and more than once ‘But he is on a screen…!’ was shouted with great indignance.

I can only speak personally on the next layer down of internal mind-games, temptation, and justification.  I was interested not just in how strong the temptation would be, but the ways I would try and get round the trigger response to ‘just check….’

Email, not a problem, never once opened Mail.  The desire to check social media, post a good photo or share a witty thought was easily dealt with, but the longing to know the cricket score and the justification to check our wider family group in whatsapp was huge and I got quite creative in my self justification of breaking the fast.

What replaced screens?

A core point Andy Crouch makes in Tech-wise family is that technology is designed to make life easy, but that ease hinders the development of wisdom and character and with them resilience and creativity.  The hours we recovered from screen time, needed to be intentionally used for family life, activity and creativity.  We realised quickly as parents, that going screen-free meant investment from us.  We needed to be more present with the boys, we needed to help them to overcome boredom, we needed to play with them, read with them, walk with them, talk to them!  Having 4 children close in age brings its own challenges, but take away work and screens and that gave us the joy of overcoming those challenges.  The purpose of going screen-free wasn’t just to break addictions, it was to create family.

Dehumanising: (A reflection on Auschwitz)

I’ve learned a new word this month: dehumanising.

It’s not that I didn’t know the word previously, but this month I’ve begun to learn what it means.  It has become a three dimensional reality for me, I’ve seen some of the scars of the horrors it leads to.

I was very privileged to be part of a pilgrimage to Auschwitz in January 2017.

The two concentration camps at Auschwitz and Birkenhau, have been preserved sensitively as historical sites, with some prison buildings at CampA at Auschwitz also re-ordered as a museum.  There’s no gaudy plastic or posters, there’s a simplicity and honour of the memories the place holds.  Those memories themselves are enough to impact the many visitors.  I agree with the Archbishop of Canterbury and all those who simply reflect: ‘everyone should go to Auschwitz’.

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To visit the camps, to see the very cells the prisoners were kept and killed in, the execution wall, the display of empty tins of zyklon B,P1040373.JPG and to see the crushed mesh of  glasses, and piles of unlaced shoes, stolen from their owners, is to be saturated by the memories of human cruelty to humans.  (to steal someone’s shoes or glasses is itself barbarically disempowering)
The historical evidence of that cruelty is overwhelming.  We each respond emotionally to different things, for me personally the room full of recovered human hair and the wall of photos of prisoners were two of the memories which landed the most deeply, I had to stand still just to recover my breath.

In the museum I had to choose to remember the humanity amidst the static displays, which is why the hair and the photos reached deepest for me, this was my point of contact with the humans who had been treated so cruelly.  The other place where my heart was most wrenched by the reality was in a hut in Birkenhau, when I leant on the very beds which women and children had slept in, bare boards with 8 people per bed.  I touched the very wood they had slept on.

p1040435Story after story, display after display, and photo after photo exposed the way which the SS soldiers treated the prisoners, it was a conscious effort to realise these very things happened on this very ground, in these very rooms, within living memory.  Today, the Auschwitz museum has posted photos online of survivors returning to that very place on Holocaust Memorial Day.  The scene so familiar, the same sun pushing through the mist and the same snow I walked past, I count it a privilege to be linked in this way with them.

Throughout the day, as I let myself be carried by this flood of history, and engage with the reality, my mind kept returning to the same question: ‘How?’

The museum contains powerful displays, reminders and evidence, but to be there is to engage the imagination and realise not long ago, these victims were real people. Not merely living, breathing, washing in those sinks, using those loos, and all too insufficiently eating, but talking, relating, imagining, seeking to understand, trying to survive, holding onto love.

This process of imagining the reality of what was going on, was to ask a thousand questions.

Did they wash? How did they cope with the biting cold? What did it smell like? How did they relate to one another?  My imaginings led me to consider their powerlessness, they were stripped of everything.  Their clothes, their hair, all possessions, even their gold teeth.  Victor Frankl’s stunning book ‘Man’s search for meaning’ talks of the horror of being stripped of the manuscript of the book he was writing, his life’s work.  How he had to internalise what he had written, inside him, to a place they could not steal it from.

In order to manage crowds of prisoners, they found mechanical ways to control the prisoners, enabling them to survive in order to exploit them for work, but caring not if they died, because they had thousands more to replace them.  Once their possessions, hair and futures had been stolen, they could only treat them like machines, feeding them the very minimum food as fuel, to keep them working.

The first stage of dehumanising them, was to render them powerless.  As I attempted to engage in that sense of powerlessness, I recognised that when powerless we become entirely reliant upon the mercy of others.  In the SS guards, they found no mercy.

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In this, the SS guards themselves had also surrendered part of their power.  They had to let go of their own capacity for mercy.  They had to convince themselves that these people were not people.  I am still shocked that dehumanising was powerful enough to overcome the instinct of mercy.

There are rare stories of mercy.  In the account of the Franciscan Friar Maximilian Kolbe, we hear how when 3 prisoners disappeared, the guards chose to starve 10 to death, chosen at random to be an example.  When one prisoner cried out ‘what about my wife and family?’, Kolbe offered to take his place and was duly starved for two weeks and finally murdered by lethal injection when starvation proved insufficient.  Amidst the horror and heroism of the story, I was surprised to hear of even that glimmer of mercy by the guard in responding to Kolbe’s request and granting the swap.   That small act of mercy stood out as a rare exception to the thousands of times the guards wouldn’t even listen to the pleas of their victims.

Wave after wave of evidence of merciless dehumanising.  In every photo, story and display the evidence is there that the guards ceased to see the victims as human beings, it is the only explanation I can find of how they could manage this. Part of this was that they stripped them, not just of possessions, relationships, hair and teeth, but of their names.  Survivors have shared the agony of being reduced to a number, all learning, qualifications, status and dignity, deleted, all part of the attempt to dehumanise.

To such a tiny extent I was invited to engage with the memory of horror which results from dehumanising.  I’ve come to a simple conclusion: to dehumanise is evil.

One theological reflection shared by Rev.Sam Wells on the trip was that evil is the systematic justifying of wrong actions as though they were right.  To paint thoughts or actions in conflict with God’s kingdom, as something which is morally acceptable.  By this definition, to dehumanise is evil.

Humans were created in God’s image, endowed with incredible honour by our loving God and described as ‘very good’.  Separation, rebellion and sin marred our creation and has led to untold suffering and division.  Jesus came to reunite and the New Testament passionately declares the re-establishment of dignity and honour of all people in God’s sight.  Bible passages such as Acts 2v17, Galatians 3v28, Ephesians 2v15 and Colossians 3v11 unequivocally declare God’s intention to restore humanity as equally loved.

Simple theology:  God looks on each human being as someone he has created and loves.  To dehumanise another is to disagree with God.

Facing up to the horrific results of dehumanising, raises many questions for me now.

How can we avoid even the slightest glimmer of dehumanising in the way we live?

We live in a vast complex world.  We share this planet, a gift from God, our home, with 7 billion other humans, each created and loved by God.  We can’t know everyone else, we will only relate to a minute proportion of these ‘others’ in our lifetime, global communications mean we will interact with far more than any previous generation in history.

Understandably we mentally clump and categorise others and consciously or subconsciously we use labels to categorise. This can enable cultural understanding, it can cause destruction and everything in between.  The worst categorising and labelling I have ever seen was the photos on the wall of Auschwitz.  Each prisoner was given a number and a coloured triangle to denote whether they were Polish, Russian, Romany, gay or Jewish (who were given a double triangle, the star of David).  Some triangles meant you were fed and survived, others meant you were deceptively led to the gas chambers.

Categorising and labelling is probably inevitable and so we have to be vigilant in one thing and that is to ensure labelling never leads to dehumanising.   There have been occasions in my life when God has rebuked me sternly by reminding me that my attitudes and actions impact his beloved children.  In every decision we make which impacts others, we remember that people are created and loved.   In every relationship and connection we make, we treat others as people not according to the labels we might have mentally put on them.

I went through a painful time in a close friendship.  Reconciliation was only possible when I recognised that I was relating not to my friend, but to a limited pigeon-holed version of him created in my imagination.  When we next met, I listened long enough to let him be himself and was able to demolish that false labelled version.  I realised I too have the capacity to dehumanise in almost every form of relationship and it could have been so destructive to a precious friendship.

The Holocaust arose in a political and ethical maelstrom, it developed unchallenged by a passive or petrified church.  The murder of millions of Jews was termed ‘the final solution’ by the Nazis because they had developed a mindset which justified dehumanising.

My reflection from engaging with dehumanising, is simply this.  Prize mercy.

God has given us the power to show mercy to others.  To treat them with honour, dignity and to empower them, not strip them of power.  In the kingdom of God, power is given in order to be given away, not to control, never to exploit.

That power he has given us, is called mercy, it’s a gift we’ve received and its a gift we must give to others.

[Photos supplied by Ian Dyble and others, with thanks, copyright is theirs.]

I have posted further thoughts on my trip here

Grief and prayer, after Auschwitz

It was the anger which took me by surprise.

I had anticipated sorrow, tiredness, and questions, but not anger.

I hadn’t really known what to expect on my return to Romiley after a pilgrimage to Auschwitz-Birkenhau.  I was partly afraid that my emotional journey might take the familiar path of numbness to guilt and self criticism for being ‘shut down’.

It happened as I set off in the car to the Peaks to find space with God to process and pray.  The usual necessities had taken up time, few people knew I was unavailable this week and I had a flood to texts and voicemails to ignore and feel guilty about.  I remembered a trivial practicality and pulled over to call my wife, when she answered, I exploded.  Furious that my precious prayer day had been invaded, frustrated that the world felt it needed me when I was unavailable, judgmental on those who were carrying on normal lives, serving others.

mellor-cross-2There was no rational reason for my anger, no one had wronged me, no crisis had invaded my protected time.  Raw and slightly afraid at my outburst, I detoured to Mellor Cross,
a wonderful place of prayer for me.  The mists cut out the glorious views and the farmer’s no parking signs were officious, but that didn’t get to me.  The 20ft Mellor Cross has lost its top bar and we, God’s church in our area, have not yet restored it.  (another job to feel burdened by) The symbolism pierced my bubble and provoked the question I was avoiding:

“Is it all derelict? – even this cross is desecrated, is there any good left in the world?”

auschwitz-1-2That was when it hit me, my anger was grief.
In that moment, I could see no good in the world. If I looked outwards I could only see tensions, unresolvable problems or hollow frivolity;  If I looked inwards, I saw fear, guilt and heard the agonising screams of the victims of Auschwitz.

Recognising that my anger was grief, brought perspective,  but who was I grieving for?

I had asked the Holy Spirit to navigate my emotional journey this week, what was he wanting to do in this tunnel he was taking me through?

Grief is chaotic, it generates questions, throws them up into the air, bats them around, rarely answers them and then rushes onto the next one.  Amongst the many questions my grief generated, were some about prayer which I want to explore here.

‘If my grief anger is at those closest to me – Why am I not angry with God?

It was an irrational anger with no object to blame, so it spilt on those I had subconsciously calculated will forgive me or be unharmed by my unfounded outburst.

Why not God?  Why am I not angry at him?

A skilled psychoanalyst might try to lead me to a conclusion that I am, that I blame God for the mess and pain in the world.  Yet as I leant against that headless cross and wept in surrender, all I could feel was gratitude to him, because I know that he really is the present one, with us in sorrow, suffering, martyrdom and desolation.  Our teaching in Auschwitz was built on God with us before he is for us.  One of the most profound moments of my pilgrimage to Auschwitz was encountering again to a new level of emotional engagement with Jesus, my beloved older brother on the cross, carrying my suffering.  Through this trip, I have recovered a profound closeness to him as other preoccupations have been expunged.

auschwitz-1In my past experiences of intense grief, I have rarely turned to anger against God, usually I turn away from the assumption that he is to blame.  In the Psalms he gives us freedom to express our anger, he is bigger than our emotions and in so doing he opens his arms and invites us to come and pummel him, confident that he can bear it until we punch it out of our system, his unconditional love soaking it up.  But this doesn’t answer my question.

If I try to blame God for Auschwitz, somehow I can’t.  Because to do so, would be to attempt to place myself closer to the victims than he is.  To place me in solidarity with them and have the pride to judge God makes no sense.

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He was there and I wasn’t.

He was alive and I wasn’t yet born.

The victims were his family and not mine.

 

 

 

My mind bats away the vast and complex, ’is God powerless?’ but the next question which my grief, in its bleak outlook on the world raises, is terrifying.  When I consider how my heart responds to numerous prayer requests, I have to ask, “have I given up on the notion of God being powerful or likely to act? and has this trip further pushed that faith away from me?’

This is a substantial area of grief for me, a substantial challenge to my faith and ministry and mission.  In the face of Auschwitz, Syria and Donald Trump, the painful mess I see in so many churches, the frustrations of trying to share the best news ever with a world that so often shows little interest, and other disappointments, is there any point in asking God to do something?  When I look around me right now from a place of grief, the weight of evidence of what I focus on tells me that God is not active, not bringing change, not ruling from heaven and bringing resurrection life in the midst of the decay of this fallen world.

auschwitz-1-6My head might wrestle with the theological constructions, but when I catch a glimpse of my own prayer life and moments of ambivalence in prayer right now, I see that a big chunk inside is tempted to let go of hope, let alone faith, that God acts when we pray.

That is a scary place to be.  img_6127That is the decay of a central pillar of my life and ministry.  To play with this as a percentage game, when I start to believe there is a less than 30% chance of a prayer being answered, then why bother praying it at all?  Have I really lost the faith that when I pray, God will act?

img_6157What happened in the Holocaust was horrific, extreme and beyond imagination.  In so many ways  millions of prayers were left on earth unanswered and so it seems that God was powerless or disinterested.  We can of course refer to the bigger, eternal story, that God is responding in the long run, some theological answers are satisfying, others not.

But what about day-to-day prayer now?  How can I pray for the civilians of Mosul and Aleppo today? How can I pray for America this week? They are facing the alarming historical parallels of a sociopathic populist leader being democratically elected by a protesting disaffected people.  Hitler wanted to ‘Make Germany great again’.  How can we pray, if we start to feel like God isn’t going to act?

auschwitz-1-3When it comes to prayer, protest and resistance, Auschwitz was not binary.  In late 1941 three girls smuggled gunpowder out of the munitions factory and then blew up one of the gas chambers , this raises good questions.  450 prisoners were killed in response to this plot, but it put a gas chamber out of action.  That slowed down the killing by 20% for a few months until liberation. Each chamber could kill 2,000 at a time, potentially many thousands a day, maybe thousands of lives were spared because of that?

There are Holocaust survivors, Judaism was not eliminated, there are stories of those who escaped Nazi occupation, there are Oscar Schindlers and Nicholas Wintons.  Some prayers were answered.  Just because we may not see the whole outcome, we will see more of heaven invade earth if we pray than if we just watch.

Also, perhaps prayer is more instinctive than that?  As I consider the reality, I can’t stop praying.  We were led in meditations on the Stations of the cross around Birkenhau, one of the most moving parts personally was the prayers of intercession at each station, img_6137for women, for children, for Jewish and Romany people, for perpetrators of evil.  These were amazing moments, because my heart took over and in wordless cries turned to God for help in compassion for those who are powerless.  I will continue to pray and intercede, because I am unable to not pray.  I cannot bear the burden of compassion and empathy I feel with those I am otherwise powerless to help, I have to share that burden with God and carry it with him not for him.

“What are we asking God to do when we pray?” 

The lectures, worship, reflections and leadership of the trip was outstanding, it was a privilege to be with such exceptional wisdom and emotional intelligence.  However there was a moment when a typical litany left me yearning for more.  As we travelled around the world in a nicely constructed list of ‘people we ought to pray for’, I found myself deeply dissatisfied.  No words or time were  available to help us consider what we were asking God to do for these beloved people.  The prayers were devoid of verbs, and so the nouns became like tokens.  The only lists I write are shopping and ‘to do’ lists, a collection of things I lack, an expression of poverty or pressures.  These two words perhaps best describe how I feel about merely listing to God a series of people he is already fully aware of.

And so its redoubled my consideration on how can we encourage one another to pray with verbs.  Most (but sadly not all) of our collects manage it.  An example from next Sunday

Almighty God,
 in Christ you make all things new:
 transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace, 
 and in the renewal of our lives
 make known your heavenly glory;
 through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
 who is alive and reigns with you…

We urgently need prayer which expects something to happen, prayer which does more than express empathy or train memory, prayer which turns to a powerful God and asks for change.

 

[Grateful to Richard Frank for his photography]

A follow up post on the dehumanising which happened at Auschwitz is available here. https://romileyrichard.wordpress.com/2017/01/27/dehumanising-a-reflection-on-auschwitz/