Tuesday, 28 May 2013

'Put That Light Out!'

I was saddened to hear of the passing yesterday of the actor Bill Pertwee.  A stalwart in the BBC sitcom Dad’s Army, Pertwee’s death at the age of 86, leaves only three survivors from the central cast of the classic wartime comedy.

I have to confess to being a Dad’s Army fan for the past 40 years. Superbly scripted and acted by a cast of the country’s finest actors, the programme ran for a total of nine seasons from July 1968 to November 1979. Re-runs on satellite channels have enabled Dad’s Army to retain its freshness and popularity to this day.  

The series, written by Jimmy Perry and David Croft, chronicles the adventures of a Home Guard platoon in the south coast village of Walmington on Sea during World War 2. Although set in the context of war, Dad’s Army strikes a chord with me because it looks back at time when life was less complicated, gentler and morally more clear cut.

The actors and the wonderfully crafted characters they portrayed made the series. Bill Pertwee is fondly remembered as Hodges, the argumentative air raid warden who frequently annoys the platoon commander Captain Mainwaring and is known for his catch phrase, “Put that light out!” Indeed, warden Hodges proved far more of an irritant to the good citizens of Walmington on Sea than the German army poised across the channel.

A greengrocer by day, elevated to the position of chief air raid warden at night, the character of Hodges went to extraordinary lengths to pull rank over Captain Mainwaring, the town’s bumptious little bank manager.  The verbal jousting between the greengrocer and the bank manager, nicknamed ‘Napoleon’ by the former, exemplified the subtle nuances of social class which existed in England at that time.

Oliver Duggan’s obituary article in yesterday’s 'Independent' newspaper includes an interview with Bill Pertwee’s son Jonathan who said: “He would give everything a go..... But also he was very humble about the whole thing. ‘He’d say ‘marvellous, isn’t it, to be in this business, because I’m not really a proper actor’, but he was extraordinarily versatile."

With the passing of Bill Pertwee, only three members of the Dad’s Army cast remain today: Ian Lavender, who played the youthful ‘mummy’s boy’, Private Pike, Pamela Cundell, Corporal Jones’ girlfriend Mrs Fox, and Frank Williams, the show’s camp vicar.

In Dad’s Army Bill Pertwee made me laugh and that’s a great gift. As a Christian, laughter is important to me because I have something to smile about. The book of Proverbs talks positively about the healing qualities of laughter:

 ‘A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones’.

Good Clean laughter is a most wonderful kind of medicine. It comes highly recommended and helps bring about inner healing as well as building our faith and trust in God.


NB      Next post will be on June 12.  Jetting off to the Med for some sun.



Monday, 27 May 2013

Too Smart for God !

Prospect magazine recently published the results of its World Thinkers Poll of 2013. With more than 10,000 votes from over 100 countries, the top ten of this online poll provides us with a snapshot of some of the intellectual ideas and trends that are beginning to shape the contemporary world.

I have to confess that most of the 65 names in the poll listing are not instantly recognisable. However, the following four from the top ten caught my attention for a variety of different reasons.  

Mohamed El Baradei, the former director general of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency and winner of the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize is deservedly in the top ten. A prominent advocate of democracy in Egyptian politics, he is now the coordinator of the National Salvation Front, a coalition dedicated to opposing what they see as President Mohamed Morsi’s attempts to secure power for himself behind an Islamist constitution.

The English physicist Peter Higgs stands out for his humility. He lent his name to the Higgs boson subatomic particle discovered last year. Always quick to point out that others were involved in early work on the particle, he was central to the first descriptions of the boson back in 1964. Higgs is expected to receive a Nobel prize this year for his achievements.

As a teacher, I have always appreciated Harvard professor Steven Pinker’s work on language and cognition. His latest book, ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’, a panoramic sweep through history, argues that humanity has become less violent over time. Pinker has written books on a range of issues from evolutionary psychology to linguistics to history.

Coming top of the World Thinkers Poll 2013 is Professor Richard Dawkins, Emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford. An atheist and vice president of the British Humanist Association, Dawkins is well known for his criticism of creationism and intelligent design. In his 2006 book ‘The God Delusion’, he argued that a supernatural creator almost certainly does not exist and that religious faith is a delusion

His strident promotion of atheism has been controversial. Some individuals, notably writer Christopher Hitchens and psychologist Steven Pinker have been fulsome in their praise.  Others such as science philosopher Michael Ruse have accused Dawkins of being ignorant of theology and therefore unable to engage religion and faith intelligently. Peter Higgs has criticised Dawkins’ confrontational stance towards religion as unhelpful.

As a Christian, I find Dawkins’ contemptuous attitude to Christians troubling, because it reveals where his heart is. How sad! Fortunately many more people than the 10,000 who voted in the World Thinkers Poll are convinced in the existence of a loving creator God, not by reason but by personal experience.

Interestingly, the Apostle Paul has this to say about the wise: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate’...............For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength”

We should all pray that Richard Dawkins will, ‘wise up’ about God by climbing down from his ‘high horse’.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

‘De-churching’ the C of S

As a born again Christian, but not a card carrying member of any denomination, I never cease to be saddened, angered and just plain amazed by the latest nonsense from the Church of Scotland. Reading the comments on the Scotsman and the Herald’s websites yesterday, it would seem that I am not alone. A large number of ordinary people, some believers and others obviously non-believers have been raising their voices.

There are a number of recurring threads in the letters and posts in these newspapers. Some people want the national church to take a clear Bible based stance on the issues of the day, while others want the church to reflect ‘modern values’ and be politically correct.

With membership in freefall, a crisis in the recruitment and retention of ministers, continued concerns over finance and buildings, the General Assembly, in its latest suicidal act has allowed local congregations to recruit practising homosexual ministers...all in the name of equality and political correctness.   

Writing in the Scotsman this week, Richard Lucas made a powerful observation when he said:

“The Church of Scotland’s latest affirmation that it rejects biblical Christianity should remind us all that a group of nice people singing hymns in a building with a pointy bit at one end, led by a person in ecclesiastical garb, does not necessarily constitute a church.

There are still many local Kirks where the message of Christianity is faithfully preached, but it has been substituted by a bland and worldly moralism in many others.

The Christian answer to sin is forgiveness and transformation, not redefinition and accommodation. In the words of Jesus: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness… it is no longer good for anything”.

Amid the despair, there was also cynicism in the correspondence.  One writer complained: “there was a time, not so long ago, when reports of debates and decisions of the General Assembly were top news in the newspapers and other media. Now it is just a talking shop and few would care if it failed to meet next year”.

Adding a little acerbic humour to the tragedy, Dr Euan Dodds wrote, “Groucho Marx famously said: ‘These are my principles. If you don’t like them I have others.’ It seems the Church of Scotland is now saying the same thing.

While holding a “traditionalist” position, congregations can opt out as and when they please. The only difference, however, is that Groucho was joking.”

I am in wholehearted agreement with Richard Lucas when he asserts that quasi-ecclesiastical activity ‘does not constitute a church’. That being the case, the Bible believing, born again Christians......the real church, should immediately leave the Church of Scotland. They would be warmly welcomed by brothers and sisters in the Free Churches and the in the growing independent evangelical sector. The remaining rump would then be free to rebrand itself as a modern politically correct, non-spiritual organisation. It could even rename itself as the Scottish Welfare Philosophical and Debating Society for which oblivion would be guaranteed. Unlike Groucho Marx....I'm not joking!!!!

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Rockets to Roses

Yesterday I was surprised to receive an e-mail offering entitled ‘Rockets into Roses’. Intrigued, I opened the message to find that it is a project in southern Israel involving an artist who makes hand sculpted roses, candlesticks and menorahs from rockets fired across the border by Hamas and its affiliates.  These stunning pieces are the work of Yaron Bob, an Israeli artist and part-time teacher who lives on the border.

Like thousands of other Jewish and Arab Israeli citizens, Bob lives day by day in the shadow of terror. Undaunted, his mission is to transform objects of hatred and war into expressions of grace and peace which symbolise the perseverance of the people of Israel.

In the summer of 2005, Israel evacuated 10,000 of its citizens from 21 communities in the occupied Gaza region...... all in the hope of a peaceful future. Sadly, withdrawal from Gaza had the opposite effect. Rocket attacks on southern Israel intensified with fear, panic and destruction becoming the norm. Israel's response was initially muted in the hope that perseverance and restraint would lead to a diplomatic solution. However, restraint only encouraged more rocket attacks.

Since 2005, more than 12,000 ‘Kassam’ rockets have been fired into southern Israel. These are primitive, unguided and therefore indiscriminate, ‘low tec’ weapons. An entire generation of children and adults has grown up living in the shadow of terror. When the siren is activated, Israelis in the south have 15 seconds to take shelter from incoming missiles.

Israel sent its military into Gaza in December 2008 as a last-resort attempt to bring about peace and security, exercising its right of self-defence and its' obligation to protect its citizens. Militarily successful, the operation was a diplomatic nightmare. The UN's Goldstone Report condemned Israel for its' aggression. Undaunted, the Israeli government took further defensive military action in 2010 and 2012 in the face of continued rocket attacks from Gaza.

Yaron Bob lives in the remote Israeli town of Yated, close to Israel's border with both Egypt and Gaza. Talking about his work, Bob said, "I find it fascinating to make a work of art from a piece of metal. It is powerfully meaningful when a missile that is used for killing is turned into a sign of beauty, growth and prosperity".

 As pieces of living history, Bob’s roses are extraordinary. Profits from their sale are used to build concrete shelters to protect Israelis from missile attack. They have been presented to visiting leaders such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senator John Kerry and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.

I love the motive behind ‘Rockets to Roses’. The Bible in the Book of Isaiah reminds us that despite, the strident anti-Israel rhetoric of some Scottish Christians the living God has a special peaceful purpose for his chosen people:

“And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

‘Rockets to Roses’..............I’ll buy that !!!

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

From Teaching to Learning

Having spent an entire career as a teacher, I have been reflecting recently on the many changes in education over my 34 year career. Starting back in 1976 at a school with an almost exclusively industrial working class catchment area in Renfrewshire, I found the first day quite an intimidating experience. The pupils were fine.....the attitudes and expectations of a number of the staff left much to be desired.

My first principal teacher had one mantra: ‘You are there to teach....the ‘wean’s are there to learn....anyone who does not want to learn will be belted (by you......yes me!!!!) until they are ready to shut up and get down to work !!!!

I have to admit that I was once forced to use the belt .........my principal teacher said it was all about ‘establishing myself with the punters’. More nervous than the ‘hardened offender’ about to be punished, I swung the belt, missed the two outstretched hands and hit my own leg..............very painful!  Fortunately there were no witnesses. Dismissing the intended victim, I made no further efforts to ‘establish myself’ in that way.

At the end of my 2 year probationary period, I was summoned to the Deputy Head Teacher’s office where I was asked to read and sign the final assessment form. Apparently I had passed my probation and was now a fully registered teacher. The DHT had noted on the form that I ‘was a natural teacher’. Quite how the school came to that conclusion is a mystery to this day as no – one had ever observed me teach a single lesson during that time!  

I soon realised that good teaching, positive relationships and a sense of humour were the key ingredients to success.

By the late 1980s, corporal punishment had mercifully been banned. Educational research was beginning to impact the classroom in a positive way. With a focus on learning and the quality of the learning experience as a key adjunct to teaching, teachers were forced to re-examine, and in many cases change their practice. As a result, the learning and the attainment of children and young people improved.

By the time I retired in 2010, I had the great privilege as an education officer to sit in classes and observe learning and teaching of the highest quality.

Sadly as I reflect on my life as a Christian in a number of different churches, I cannot say that I have observed the same shift in emphasis from teaching to effective learning. That’s not to say that the Ministers and Pastors that I have listened to have been poor teachers. A number were very good. However, their teaching had minimal impact on the lives of their congregants......some of whom had been receiving teaching for more than 50 years!  

In the Old testament, the Prophet Hosea, referring to the people of Israel said: ‘my people are destroyed for lack of knowledge’. The rest of the verse goes on to explain that the people did not simply lack knowledge; they actively rejected it. Perhaps that’s why the church in Scotland is in decline.

The learning of all Scottish young people is assessed at age 16. Teachers are subsequently assessed on how well their pupils perform. Every individual will one day have to give an account to God for their life. What will that day reveal about your learning from God....????

All in the Mind.....Part 2

Many years ago, when the topic of ‘Law and Order’ was a part of the Scottish Higher Modern Studies syllabus, I always introduced the series of lessons by talking about the 19th century Italian criminologist, Cesare Lombroso.

Born in Verona, Italy, in 1835 to a wealthy Jewish family, he chose a career as a military surgeon in 1859.  By 1878, he had become professor of forensic medicine and hygiene at Turin where he produced his most important and influential work, ‘L'uomo Delinquent’.

In this book, Lombroso developed his theory of criminal atavism. With evidence from post mortem examinations and studies of criminals and individuals with psychiatric illnesses, Lombroso postulated that some individuals were "born criminal". He further suggested that such people could be identified from facial features such as a sloping forehead, ears of unusual size, asymmetry of the face and cranium.

While my students had a lot of fun comparing their own and their friends faces to the slide containing eight examples of Lombroso’s ‘criminal faces’, they like most Europeans in the late 19th century did not take the theory of criminal atavism seriously. While Lombroso's theories were unanimously disapproved throughout Europe, there was for a time, some interest in the United States where the study of the sociology of crime was popular.

Scientific interest in crime continues today. I was recently drawn to an article entitled ‘My Brain Structure Made Me Kill!’ by Wesley J. Smith on the ‘Human Exceptionalism’ website.

It focuses on research by the scientist Adrian Raine who has sought to, “demonstrate that violent behaviors may be products of the perpetrators’ brain structures. Raine has taken brain scans of violent criminals and believes that he has found organic commonalities, leading him to propose that the time has come to stop punishing violent behaviour as a crime, but instead, to treat murderers as if they are medical patients.”  

According to Smith, “there is growing advocacy among the intelligentsia that denies free will....one of the morally relevant traits in our nature that makes us (human beings) exceptional........claiming instead that our behaviour is predetermined by evolutionary forces........and more particularly, our individual genetic makeup. If we can’t help ourselves, concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ will have to be replaced by forced non-judgmentalism toward all personal behaviours.”

While I find a lot of this stuff interesting, I prefer to take my moral and ethical cues from the Bible. While ‘born in sin’ we humans have also been created with free will. Sin is our failure to live as God intends. Yet when we do fail to make the right choices in life, God has provided a way out for the consequences of our sin. In the Bible the Apostle Paul persecuted Christians to the point of death, yet his life was turned around through faith in Christ. Indeed he was later able to say in one of his letters:

“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”

God reached out to Paul and he made the right choice. Three cheers for free will !!

Monday, 20 May 2013

All in the Mind.....Part 1

I was interested to read that the European Commission has decreed the month of May to be ‘European Month of the Brain’. The Commission has organised conferences and symposiums in Brussels and Dublin aimed at taking ‘European brain research to the next level’.

This makes good economic sense. Treatment of brain related disorders currently costs eight hundred billion Euros per annum across the European Union. In addition research has revealed that one person in three will suffer a brain related disorder in his/her lifetime.

As a teacher, I have always been fascinated by the brain, in particular how its function relates to learning. However, even with today’s advanced computer imaging techniques, brain research is really still in its infancy.

The American author, Burkhard Bilger alluded to this state of affairs when he wrote: “the brain............ is like Kublai Khan, the great Mongol emperor of the thirteenth century. It sits enthroned in its skull, "encased in darkness and silence," at a lofty remove from brute reality. Messengers stream in from every corner of the sensory kingdom, bringing word of distant sights, sounds, and smells. Their reports arrive at different rates, often long out of date, yet the details are all stitched together into a seamless chronology. The difference is that Kublai Khan was piecing together the past. The brain is describing the present—processing reams of disjointed data on the fly, editing everything down to an instantaneous now. How does it manage it ?”

In the Bible, David the Psalmist was able to praise God for being ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’. Yet it is our very humanity that causes our mortal bodies to age, and for a growing number of people it means they will fall victim to diseases of ageing such as Alzheimer’s disease.

According to eminent neurologist, Professor Bruno Dubois, “there is no treatment” for the disease and sufferers are currently being “treated with a drug not directed at the disease”. At a recent conference, Dubois said he hoped science will eventually “improve the symptoms even though we don’t know the cause of the disease.”

While any real progress may be a long way off, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz has noted that a lifestyle characterised by activities such as gardening and regular prayer can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Apparently a study in 2005 also found that once diagnosed, the disease progressed much more slowly in those who had spiritual/religious lifestyles.

In an article in yesterday’s Independent, Tony Lobl movingly described the course of the disease in Australian dementia sufferer Christine Bryden.

“The Christian former pharmaceutical worker, science publisher and civil servant talks of her dementia as “a spiritual journey towards the divine” and has said: “I believe I am much more than just my brain structure and function, which is declining daily. My creation in the divine image is as a soul capable of love, sacrifice, and hope, not as a perfect human being, in mind or body. I want you to relate to me in that way, seeing me as God sees me.”

Christine has remarkable insight. When we see ourselves through the eyes of Jesus, it truly gives us a completely different perspective to a life of quality that is really worth living.

The King is Dead....Long Live the King !

With a characteristic flurry, Sir Alex Ferguson ended his 1500 game reign as Manchester United manager by setting another record. His team’s ten goal draw (5-5) with West Bromwich Albion was the first score line of its kind in the Premiership.

Meanwhile, incoming Manchester United manager, David Moyes had the dubious pleasure of watching Everton crash to a 2-1 defeat against Chelsea in his final game in charge.

Moyes will have to hit the ground running when he takes control at Manchester United. Gorged on success, the fans will demand that he continue the club’s long trophy run.

Ferguson joined Manchester United from Aberdeen in 1986. Success did not come immediately. By 1989, following an early season run of six defeats and two draws in eight games the club’s fans were calling for change. A banner displayed at Old Trafford summed up the mood....... "three years of excuses and it's still crap ... ta-ra Fergie."

Supported by the board of directors, Ferguson stuck to the task, although he later described December 1989 as "the darkest period he had ever suffered in the game". Despite the club’s continued poor league form, the directors recognised that Ferguson’s ‘behind the scenes’ work in reorganising the coaching and scouting systems would eventually pay off.

Their faith was rewarded in May 1990 when United won the FA Cup. Beating Crystal Palace 1-0 in a replay following a 3–3 draw in the first match, Ferguson gained his first major trophy as Manchester United manager......the rest is history.  

Has David Moyes got what it takes to cut the mustard at Old Trafford ? He has consistently helped Everton, a much smaller club, to remain in contention in the top half of the Premiership for 11 years. His teams play a very attractive style of football.

His managerial style is different, more considered, thoughtful and much less confrontational than that of Ferguson.  No ‘hairdryer’ when dealing with player underperformance. Overall, Moyes is pretty well equipped for success in what most commentators agree is the biggest job in football.

Moyes also has an extra factor guaranteed to bring success. Writing in The Independent on 13 May, Glenn Moore noted, “the public image of David Moyes is as an intense, hard manager. The reality is different. He is quietly-spoken and good company with an interest in the pastoral care of his players. That perhaps stems from his deep-seated Christian beliefs, an aspect of his personality he tends not to discuss.”

For me, anyone with a living faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour is a winner.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Power Corrupts

As a historian, I have always been fascinated by the way individuals exercise power. It is certainly true that for some, power does have a corrupting effect and in the most extreme cases, ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’.

While historians concentrate on researching and studying the exercise of power in the political milieu, the exercise and abuse of power can be observed in all human activity from the family, to business, education and even in the church.

However, most right thinking people in the end will either act, or sanction others including the state to act on their behalf when there is evidence of the abuse of power. Wars have been fought to bring about regime change and remove dictators such as Hitler and Saddam Hussein. The criminal law code enforced by the courts and law enforcement agencies is there to deal with abuse of power in the family and business. In education, the law does not stop at the school gates when abuse of power such as bullying takes place.

So what happens when there is blatant and harmful abuse of power in the church......usually nothing. The major recent exception has been the media led expose of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church which is slowly leading to a more vigilant and robust approach to the issue within that particular denomination.

However, hidden from the public gaze and media exposure lurks another equally insidious phenomenon: spiritual abuse. This is a destructive and extremely harmful abuse of power which has taken hold in some independent and mainstream institutional evangelical churches in Scotland.

A definition of spiritual abuse can be found in the introduction to researcher and author Jeff VanVonderen’s website:

“Spiritual abuse occurs when someone in a position of spiritual authority, the purpose of which is to ‘come underneath’ and serve, build, equip and make God’s people more free, misuses that authority placing themselves over God’s people to control, coerce or manipulate them for seemingly godly purposes which are really their own.”

Since the 1980s a detailed body of high level academic research on spiritual abuse has grown to the point that the existence of such abuse can no longer be ignored.

In his article, "Dysfunctional Churches" Christian Professor and author Ronald Enroth writes:

"If truth in advertising standards could be applied to religion, some churches would be required to display a sign reading: ‘Warning: this church could be harmful to your spiritual and psychological health.’...... What are the hallmarks of unhealthy, aberrant churches? The key indicator is controloriented leadership, ministers who have a need to “lord it over the flock.” Abusive leaders demand submission and unquestioning loyalty. The person who raises uncomfortable questions or does not “get with the program” is cast aside. Guilt, fear, and intimidation are used to manipulate and control vulnerable members, especially those who have been taught to believe that questioning their pastor is comparable to questioning God.

Why does a pastor or priest sometimes turn into a spiritual tyrant? I believe it is because of the human desire to control others and to exercise power over people. Each of us has been exposed to the temptation of power, whether in the role of spouse, teacher, or parent. An excessive will to power, coupled with sincere religious motives, can lead to the misuse of spiritual authority.

How can we recognize a healthy church? In addition to matters of appropriate doctrine, a healthy church is reconciling and restorative, not adversarial and elitist. Members of healthy churches seek to deepen and strengthen their family commitments. Legitimate leaders will welcome dissent and hard questions from members without threat of reprisal. Trustworthy leaders will encourage accountability, and they will establish checks and balances."

Choose a church carefully and prayerfully. Remember, not all religion is benign, and not all church experience is beneficial."

Professor Enroth is absolutely correct. To all spiritually abusive leaders, their fellow travellers and supporters, the message from scripture is clear........repent, be reconciled to God and produce spiritual fruit in keeping with repentance. This ‘fruit’ should be clearly observable actions aimed at putting right all of the harm done to their victims.

In the end God always has the last word, because all will have to account for their actions and attitudes. Jesus had a stern warning for unrepentant religious leaders:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

FOOD..... for Thought

As a person living comfortably in retirement from paid employment, I was shocked to learn that 13 million people in the UK are currently living in poverty. Even more alarming is the fact that 50 per cent of the impoverished are from working households.

Recession followed by the coalition government’s policy of austerity has led to flat-lining incomes or redundancy for many. Increasing food and fuel prices, higher rents, reforms to the benefit and tax systems have all conspired to put intolerable pressure on some of the UK’s most vulnerable people. Many are now being forced to resort to food banks to feed themselves and their families...........unthinkable even five years ago.

As a Christian, I was delighted to discover the leading organisation in the food bank movement is a Christian charity called the Trussell Trust.  Since its inauguration in 2004 it has developed a network of 200 food banks, with a further 250 planned by 2015. The Trust currently operates 10 food banks in Scotland.

In a recent interview with the BBC, Chris Mould, executive chairperson of the Trust revealed that food banks have become a lifeline for a growing number of families. He reckons every community should have a food bank so that no one in the country should ever need to go hungry. Trussell Trust food banks provide local people in a crisis situation with at least three days’ supply of nutritionally-balanced food.

According to the BBC report, “two out of three households have no savings so unemployment, an unexpected repair bill, a cut in hours or overtime mean the household books simply won't balance any more.  Again and again, food banks meet people who have been going without proper food for days - often so that their children can get a square meal...........................Thousands of frontline care professionals across the country use food banks week in week out to prevent people they are working with from falling into a downward spiral that so often could lead to them losing their home, suffering family breakdown, getting caught up in crime or facing serious mental and physical health problems.”

The Bible has a lot to say about food and the hungry.  Jesus’ brother James in his Epistle points out the key relationship between a person’s faith and its practical outworking:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has not works, is dead.”

The Christians who operate the Trussell Trust have obviously taken a leaf out of James’ letter. The organisation’s motto is ‘Restoring Dignity and Reviving Hope’.....that’s something I can support. See  www.trusselltrust.org  and make a donation.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Conning the Faithful: 'Christian' Pseudo-Psychotherapy

I was quite interested in one of the headlines in yesterday’s Independent newspaper which read..... ‘Paul McKenna: I can make you better’. It appears that the former Top Shop DJ, TV hypnotist, self help guru and multi-millionaire businessman, has moved into the questionable area of psychotherapy, having adopted the "Havening Technique".

McKenna, recently offered author James Moore treatment using the Havening technique to help him cope with the after-effects of a road accident that nearly killed him. Moore, a keen cyclist, was run over by a tanker two years ago. The effects of the accident were profound.....three weeks spent in a coma followed by a further nine weeks in hospital left Moore with profound psychological trauma. Drugs prescribed by his physicians caused hallucinations which were vivid and frightening.

After five months of therapy he had begun to feel better but confessed, “recently the demons have been jabbing, especially at night. So, while I'm generally suspicious of the self-help industry, and its gurus, I was more than willing to give McKenna a shot.”

The Havening technique is described by Moore as follows: “You think of a really nasty memory, establishing it clearly in your mind, and rate its intensity. You close your eyes and tap on your collar bone. You then open your eyes, clear your mind, and think of something pleasant. You then follow the therapist's finger moving rapidly this way and that.

After this you relax, and he rubs the top of your arms, while you imagine, say, tapping a keyboard, counting up from one to 20. You hum a few bars of a tune (say "Happy Birthday", or the national anthem), close your eyes for more arm rubbing, open them and rate the trauma's impact afterwards. After that it's lather, rinse, repeat. The therapist, so it is said, doesn't need to know the nature of the memory. Just the technique of desensitising it.”

Did the Havening therapy make James Moore better ?  Not really. Recounting his take on the experience, Moore lamented: “I'm not sure Havening is quite as miraculous as McKenna says it is. Psychological bruises from the accident remain with me and they're still sore. When he tried it out as a way of soothing the physical, neuropathic pain which is a constant companion, the effect was minimal.”

As a Christian I never cease to be amazed how techniques such as Havening, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, and Imago relationship therapy have infiltrated the church. A recent Google search threw up dozens of businesses and individuals offering ‘christian’ counselling and psychotherapy in most cases at a cost.

What’s on offer? Dr. Will Meek in his 2010 essay ‘Discredited Psychological Treatments’ argues that the therapies listed above have three things in common:

“First, they claim to offer incredible results beyond what is traditionally known for credible approaches (sometimes instant and near miracle like results are promised). Second, they almost always come from some kind of private industry or fringe charismatic inventor. Third, they are often rejected by scientific understanding or research, and continue to be taught through workshops rather than in universities.”

Neuro-linguistic programming is one of the most commonly used techniques by the so-called ‘Christian psychotherapists’.

Dr Meek describes NLP as, “essentially, a collection of basic ideas about communication repackaged and given a fancy new name that sounds "science-y". Research throughout the 80s and 90s discredited NLP and it has been rejected by the mainstream psychological community for many years. However, special workshops and a cottage industry continues to profit on NLP.

The most interesting thing about NLP is that it is nearly impossible to find out exactly what it is. Almost every free resource dedicated to it will not give any specific techniques or ideas. This is always a red flag because real treatments are widely taught to everyone willing to listen in credible institutions, not just by salespeople in expensive hotel workshops.”

I am going to give the last words on the efficacy or not of ‘Christian’ psychotherapy to TC McMahon and the late Dave Hunt of the ‘Berean Call’ web ministry:

“The heroes and heroines of Bible history all triumphed by faith in God and in His promises. They neither had nor needed any help whatsoever from “Christian psychology,” which didn’t even exist in their day. Wouldn’t faith in God and His Word, which has been proved thousands of times through the ages to be more than sufficient in every conceivable circumstance and in the deepest trials, be sufficient for Christians today, no matter what their trials and challenges might be? What could possibly persuade a Christian to look to psychology, invented by anti-Christians, for help in living a life pleasing to God?

Of course, [some] Christian psychologists claim to have a firm faith in the inerrancy of Scripture. But no matter how firmly a psychologist adheres to the inerrancy of Scripture, they all must deny its sufficiency. This is the only way to justify their profession. If any part of the Bible is in error, where can the line be drawn? If the Bible has not given us all we need to live the Christian life, that fact alone would be enough to make all of it suspect in view of the many places where it claims to be sufficient for living triumphant lives pleasing to God.”

‘Christian’ Pseudo-Psychotherapy.....definitely a very expensive con by any other name. To be avoided at all costs !



Brown's (Not Dante's) Inferno

Published today, Dan Brown's latest offering to his expectant readers, ‘Inferno’, is poised for the biggest first day of sales since Harry Potter.  Indeed, the Da Vinci Code author's new work featuring the reluctant hero, art historian Robert Langdon, was already Amazon's top-selling book even before it was published.

The book is the fourth in the series featuring Robert Langdon, beginning with ‘The Da Vinci Code’ in 2003 which went on to sell 80 million copies. Brown’s last book, ‘The Lost Symbol’ precipitated a similar initial sales frenzy, with 500,000 hardback copies sold in its first week.

‘Inferno’ has already affected the sales patterns of more ancient texts. The works of the 14th century poet Dante Alighieri, author of the poem ‘Inferno’ have once again become popular.

Brown’s novel has been translated into different languages under the highest security at Italy’s largest publishing company. Demand for the book will be global: the rewards for the author and publishers are expected to be equally mind-boggling.

In a pre-publication interview with the Sunday Times, Brown has promised that ‘Inferno’ will be his “darkest yet”.  In a further enticement to his readers, Brown hinted there is part of the book “that is secret and timely, that is really what is going to be most controversial about the book", adding...... “I’ve known for quite some time that I would write a book based on the Inferno. Having written Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, I’ve spent a lot of time on Christian ideology and history. The Bible states that there’s an underworld, and it hints that it might not be a very nice place, but it wasn’t until the 1300s and this vision of Inferno that it became terrifying. Dante has had enormous influence on the Christian view of hell.”

Dan Brown is quite right. The Bible talks a lot about hell. In the Bible it is the place of future punishment and the final destination for unbelievers. It is described in Scripture using various terms such as eternal fire, outer darkness, a place of weeping and torment, the lake of fire, the second death, unquenchable fire. What is most terrifying and real about hell is that it is a real place where:

·         Punishment is eternal i.e. it goes on forever.

·         There is complete separation from God.

·         There is continuous fire.

·         There is constant and unremitting pain.

The good news is that hell can be avoided. God sent his son Jesus Christ to die on a cross and take the punishment for the sin of each individual. The Bible says:  “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”.............Now that’s really good news worth shouting about !!!!

Monday, 13 May 2013

Weird is not the 'New Normal'

I came across a blog called The Internet Monk, written by a guy called Michael Spencer. Although Michael succumbed to cancer in 2010, his work has been carried on by others. Today I’m simply going to leave it to Michael to sum up what I feel today by quoting from one of his blogs entitled ‘Signs’.

“So they said to him, "Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform?" John 6:30

So the Jews said to him, "What sign do you show us for doing these things?" Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." John 2:18-19

And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, "Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation." Mark 8:12

I am tired of hearing people I work with say that God is talking to them like He talked to Moses at the burning bush or like He talked to Abraham. I'm weary of people saying God speaks directly to them about mundane matters of reasonable human choice, so that their choices of toothpaste and wallpaper are actually God's choices, and therefore I need to just shut up and keep all my opinions to myself until I can appreciate spiritual things. I'm tired of people acting as if the normal Christian life is hearing a voice in your head telling you things other people can't possible know, thus allowing you a decided advantage.

I mean, if all this were really happening, wouldn't these people be picking better stocks?...................

I'm worn out on people doing weird things that aren't in the Bible and saying it's the "leading of the Spirit." Falling over.  Acting drunk.  Jumping around like a wasp went down your dress. I'm tired of turning on the TV or the radio and hearing Christians making more noise than a riot at a mental hospital. I'm out of patience with Christian spirituality equalling some form of clown college graduation. 

I'm seriously fatigued from constantly hearing reality explained as spiritual warfare between angels, Christians, demons, and various conspiracies. The drama of blaming everything from illness to bad credit to all your bad choices on the devil is getting old. I'm tired of people being delivered from demons when their problem is their own rebellion, stupidity, meanness, and determination to get their own way.......................................

Isn't the Christian life the "Victorious" life? The "Purpose Driven" life? The "Spirit Filled" life? The life with Christ living in you and through you? It's not a normal life, and it's not ordinary. Right? Do I get an "amen?"

Or maybe you are like me. You are an ordinary Christian living an ordinary life. You don't hear voices, see visions, or believe you are under constant attack by demonic forces. You may have some experiences that you call supernatural or miraculous, but they are the exception, not the rule. When you pray for people, things usually don't change; you change. You have no authoritative insight into what is going to happen in the future. You suspect that if you were filled with the Spirit, you would love God and people more, and do the right thing more often. You'd be more like Jesus. You wouldn't be running around in circles pointing out angels on the roof. The fruit of the Spirit would make you a person others would want to be around, not someone who would frighten animals and small children.

My point is not to trash anyone who believes in any of these things. Not at all . My point is that "normal" Christian experience is increasingly seen as "bad" or "abnormal," while weirdness is increasingly seen as "normal" and proof that a person is really "spiritual." This shift has enormous implications for Christianity in its essence, its witness, and its experience in the lives of believers.

The principle that I would like to put forward is this: The supernatural character of Christian truth and experience does not remove the basic, normal, human experience of Christians. If "normal" humanity is eclipsed, Christianity ceases to be Biblical, truthful or helpful...................................

"Normal" Christians are living without these "signs." They are living by faith in what the Bible says, and not looking to their experience to be a daily demonstration of God's still being around and in the miracle business. In comparison to those who live with daily miracles and prophecies, these normal Christians may have experiences that seem dull or even absent. It is no wonder that many "normal" Christians struggle with feelings of resentment, envy, or anger toward those Christians who claim constant miracles and manifestations of God's power. Part of my own weariness is from years of feeling second-class and left out of "real" Christian experience. Then I was angry at myself for faking it in an attempt to fit in. Now I'm tired of playing this game, and disturbed by what I see as the misrepresentation of the Gospel, and an insensitivity to the effects of weirdness on those in and out of the church.....................................................................................

Discernment is what we most owe to our weirder brothers and sisters. Not condemnation or rejection, but discernment and simple truth. We need to know our Bibles, and be able to point out the truth of the Gospel. Our lives need to be shaped by Christ, and display evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification and renewing our minds and characters. Even those who have given themselves over fully to every kind of weirdness are usually well aware of their own need of what is real. Many solid Reformed Christians spent a sojourn in this camp, and starved to death while everyone pretended there was a feast.

Bishop Ryle put it plainly: "Feelings in religion are worse than worthless, unless they are accompanied by practice." Many of our sincerely deluded brothers and sisters know this, and are afraid of what this must mean. It will do them good to see in us genuine experience and a true, substantial working out of what Christ has done for and in us.”

I’ll be raising a glass to Michael Spencer tonight. He was a true, courageous, honest and normal Christian. Speaking out on these issues while inviting the ire of some is essential.

You can read more of the late Michael Spencer’s brilliant insightful and courageous observations at: www.internetmonk.com


Friday, 10 May 2013

Only a Game

It’s a bit sad when amid the world’s violence, poverty and tragedy, the retirement of a football manager is deemed to be the global news story of the moment. Mind you, this is not just any old football manager , this is Sir Alex Ferguson, manager of Manchester United FC, one of the world’s great football institutions.......in business terms, a 'global brand'.  

While supporters of other Premiership sides have raised a glass in celebration, ‘Man U’ fans, while grateful for the success Ferguson brought to their club, now face a future of uncertainty.

A multi-billion pound business, football is fuelled by media outlets such as SKY and ESPN: its icons earning more in a week than many ordinary people will sweat to bring home over a decade of labour. For most dedicated football fans, the money is an irrelevance; it’s all about following the team, giving your all in support; it’s about the glory of winning irrespective of cost.

This was noted by the late Bill Shankly who brought a great deal of success to Liverpool FC in the 1960s. Known for his personality and wit, he is most often quoted as saying:

"Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that".

This wry ‘throw-away’ comment, forever associated with Bill Shankly contained much truth. As a participant and observer of all aspects of football from the inside, Shankly had come to appreciate its importance to the die-hard fans. Indeed for him, the game had become ‘too important’.

In an article entitled, ‘Football--the New Religion?’, the author Eddy Canfor-Dumas argues that it is the ability of football to bind large groups of people together behind a team that makes the sport comparable to religion.

 “A clue can be found in the word itself, which is commonly thought to derive from the Latin "religare," meaning "to bind." Religion is what binds people both to some transcendent truth and, crucially, to each other. The historian Arnold Toynbee went so far as to argue that civilizations rise and fall according to the ability of their dominant religions to motivate people to overcome--together--the challenges that confront them.”

Some church leaders fret that football is taking over as the nation's principal religion. They point to similarities i.e. an elaborate set of rules and rituals, regular acts of worship; a culture which fills the need for something greater than people can find in the daily grind.

For me there’s a great deal of life and vitality in football, but in the end, it’s only a game. However, there’s eternal life, and everything necessary for a great life in Jesus Christ. Church leaders should therefore wake up, stop worrying, walk away from the religious ritual that’s killing their game and simply start presenting Jesus from the standpoint of knowing him personally. Jesus without the religion ......now there’s a challenge!


Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Bullying: A Crime by Any Other Name

As a former Deputy Head in a large rural secondary school, dealing with cases of bullying amongst pupils was always a challenging and sometimes distressing part of the job. I was therefore delighted to see an item on SKY News last Sunday highlighting the deadly misery that bullying and intimidation always brings. 

A group of parents, in a campaign led by the charity BeatBullying want the Coalition to bring in effective legislation to deal with bullying. Resolute and pained, this is a group of adults inexorably bound together by tragedy.....all had lost a child through suicide as a result of bullying.  

Kelly Dugmore’s son Aaron hanged himself at home aged nine as a result of bullying. Shy Keenan claims her 14 year old son, Ayden Olsen was literally ‘bullied to death’. She told SKY News, “we tried working with the policies in place and it just wasn't enough.” In effect the families are campaigning for ‘Ayden’s Law’ to prevent future tragedies by making bullying an offence.

Richard Piggin, Deputy Chief Executive of BeatBullying said: "The latest Government statistics show that as many as 46% of young people will have experienced bullying...........For us it's about those one in 13 who experience it day in day out. They need protection and we need to make sure the perpetrators take responsibility for their actions."

In a letter to David Cameron, signed by all the families, they request: "For our families and the brothers and sisters of those we've lost, nothing can be the same again......On behalf of all children who have experienced bullying, and their families, we are calling on you and your Government to take action to help prevent more people suffering in this way.........Together we can stop bullying in our society. Please give us your support and meet with us to discuss how we make bullying unacceptable, once and for all."

In Scotland all schools are supposed to have robust anti-bullying policies in place. Despite this, Childline Scotland reports that the problem is getting worse, despite the increasing awareness and improved anti-bullying policies in schools.

For me information is the key to dealing with bullying. This requires all members of a school community to be alert, watching, listening and willing to take action.

As a Christian I always take the things that Jesus said extremely seriously. In the parable of the ‘good Samaritan’ a man is beaten, robbed and left for dead at the roadside. A number of pious ‘upright citizens’ choose to pass by the man on the other side of the road. He is eventually helped by a Samaritan, an outcast in the eyes of many at the time. In the twenty first century, where bullying is concerned, nobody should be ‘passing by’.  

At worst, bullying is an extreme abuse of power by an individual or group. Victims are isolated, abused, tormented and frequently left feeling helpless with no way out. It happens in schools, the workplace, the wider community, even in churches. It is criminal behaviour by any other name.

Sadly, there is still a lack of ‘good Samaritans’ in our society. Perhaps it is time for our decision makers to wake up and legislate........ Are you listening First Minister and Justice Secretary ?  

The secret of wellbeing

I used to manage the transition from primary to secondary school in the local area. Many times I have talked to parents about their most desired life outcomes for their children.....wealth ?.....good exam passes ?.....a place at university ?....good health ? ....not so !

Adults when asked directly, ‘what do you most want for your child’, invariably answer, ‘I want my son/daughter to be happy’. Despite all the media and material pressures that life throws up, adults still put a huge premium on happiness for their children.

According to Wikipedia, ‘happiness is a mental or emotional state of well-being characterised by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy.’ As such, happiness is a basic human right. The framers of the US Declaration of Independence deemed that, "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" were unalienable rights.

According to scientist Bruno S. Frey, happiness has a bearing on life span. Summarising his research in the journal ‘Science’, Frey reported that happy people live 14% longer, with increased longevity of 7.5 to 10 years.

The weekly online news letter ‘Barking up the Wrong Tree’ recently published five wholesome, tips that are apparently proven to make people happier. These are:

First, show gratitude for the good things you have. This is the most powerful ‘happiness boosting’ activity.

Second, exercise ‘signature strengths’. This means doing what you are good at as often as you can because it brings joy. Exercising signature strengths is why starving artists are happier with their jobs.

Third, spend as much time as possible with people you like. The happiest people are social beings. They cultivate strong relationships. Failure to spend more time with people we love is something most people regret.

Fourth, realise that there are many better things than wealth. Money has minimal effects on happiness.  It does not increase an individual’s moment to moment mood.

Finally give, because giving makes individuals happier than receiving. It creates a ‘feedback loop of happiness’. This includes giving of oneself to help others reach their goals.

For me, the best advice about being happy comes from Psalm 146 in the Bible which says:

“Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.”

Am I happy ?..................................................you bet !!!

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Adapt or Die

 It’s all change as some churches in my local area are moving into the twenty first century. Websites with links to Facebook and Twitter accounts are now ‘de rigeur’ in the modernising church. Church leaders are learning that unless they adapt their means of communication to the modern world the decline of faith in the western world will continue.
In common with many others across the globe, local church leaders are waking up to the power of social media. The statistics are staggering: 500 million Facebook users, with 50 % using it daily. There are millions of Twitter users with thousands joining daily.
In a recent article entitled ‘The Digitally Connected Church’, published in ‘Leadership’ journal, Nicole Unice and Jenny Cartron describe how social media can enhance the effectiveness of ministry when used for information, innovation and mobilisation.
Websites and the Facebook pages have already proved very effective in publicising events on an on-going basis resulting in increased participation in church events. Sermon summaries, power point presentations and Bible study notes are now available for download by the committed and the curious.
Unice and Carton describe an excellent piece of innovation in an American church which could easily be adapted to form part of a local church input into the new and evolving school curriculum (Curriculum for Excellence)..........
“One evening a high school student bounded up to me. ‘I've got an idea,’ he declared. A few hours later, he had created a Facebook group challenging members of the youth group to read a chapter from Proverbs each day and post their reflections on their own blogs or through a note on Facebook. Over the next month, I watched as students from different churches shared community and encouragement through the "Proverbs Project" Facebook group. ........The best part was that this experience was student-created and led—with no extra burden on staff. I was learning as much as they were as I watched the passion and initiative of one student multiply into a month-long experience in spiritual growth.”
The power of social media to mobilise is immense. In the USA when floods hit Tennessee in 2010, one church used social media to mobilise over 2,000 people in 24 hours to bring relief to the victims.
Jesus gave the church a mission when he said, “go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
Jesus was highly skilled at communicating spiritual truths in ways that connected with people. The Apostle Paul also worked hard at being culturally relevant.
Used wisely, social media is a powerful tool for Christians serious about their mission. Used by churches as a means of merely promoting ‘more of the same’ .............no thanks !