Monday, January 09, 2017

Is it time for a sporting reality show?

No, I'm not talking about some sort of celebrity-based show where faded pop-stars and ex-partners of gossip column notaries try their hand at field sports only to be judged by a panel of experts and voted off the show week by week. No, I mean something that actually shows you how hard ordinary sports people work to get better at what they do. The hours of training and education. The setbacks, failure, injuries and the emotional ride of winning and losing.

The thing is sport is hard, as are many things in life. But we've reduced it to what's watchable, what
at makes good TV. We don't seem too interested in the thing that makes the biggest difference-practice-we're just interested in some immeasurable thing called talent. Have they got it or haven't they? If not then vote them off and move on. Never mind the application of training and coaching, of determination and commitment.

Life is not a talent show. It's hard work. It's takes practice, and most of us don't like practice.

I came to my chosen sport of tennis late in life. I have to work really hard just to stay still in terms of playing ability and fitness. To improve takes a lot of time and energy and effort. I train for 5 hours a week, and to be honest it's not enough to push me to the level I want to achieve. In my opinion I've spent the last 4 or 5 years getting near the bottom rung of the ladder when it comes to achieving something. Yes. I'm a better tennis player than I was 5 years ago. Absolutely no doubt about that, but if this was a talent show, I'd have been voted off long ago!

So maybe it's time for a sporting reality show that takes the audience on the journey of learning and improving that we all go through. No superstars. No pantomime villain judges. No audience votes.

You never know, that might even inspire a few folk to try it for themselves.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Thinking about being coachable

Having finished my Sunday stint of coaching tennis I was sitting down with a cold drink pondering the characteristics of what it means to be coachable. These things don't just apply to tennis, they cross over into every area of life where we are learning. So it's important that we are coachable wherever we are and whatever we are doing. The uncoachable person is surely doomed to keep repeating errors and mistakes without ever learning any lessons.

So what would make your list of coachable assets?

My list is currently quite random. In fact I haven't thought it through at all. I'm doing it as I write! The first thing that comes to mind is a willingness to be taught. Unless you are willing to learn, coaching has no value. It's not just about listening either. Of course you have to listen, but you also have to apply what you hear. I despair sometimes at the inability some people have to process what they are being told. Okay, so maybe I need to find a better way, a simpler way, to get the point across sometimes. But when you've repeated yourself 100 times and still they revert back to the old pattern you do wonder why they haven't got it yet!

Second would be a positive work ethic. Progress takes work and the better you get the harder you have to work to improve. At first you can make almost quantum sized leaps in a very short space of time. But as you progress those once cosmic strides become seemingly infinitesimally small steps. So you have to be willing to work hard every time you show up.

A third trait would be something along the lines of a desire to improve and learn. What I'm trying to find a word for is an attitude that is tenacious about progress. Stickability might be a good word for it. If you're learning something new you have to deal with disappointment. Something might come easily or quickly. Some things won't. I reckon it's taken me 2 years of fairly relentless practice to take my backhand from a liability, to something that doesn't cost me points and now towards something that can win me points. Overall it's taken 5 years to get to this point and there's still an awfully long way to go. To be honest, after 5 or 6 years of leaning to play tennis I'm only just in sight of the ladder, let alone approaching the bottom rung! If you can't stick at it, you stand no chance of getting to your destination.

Application goes alongside stickability. Practice doesn't make perfect, no matter what you might have been told. I've seen lots of people doing a lot of practice. Practice has to be purposeful and constructive. Only perfect practice makes perfect. Application is taking what you're learning and practicing it with a purpose. I often find myself talking to some of my young tennis kids about doing drills. Some of them don't like it. They think that doing drills isn't playing tennis. I try to help them understand that drills are what make playing tennis possible. That brings me to another characteristic of a coachable person.

You've got to love practice. I have the privilege to practice with some good players. Players I would never get near in a match. What we have in common is a love of practice. When our coach says let's do a drill, we all say, "Which one?" and off we go. We have our favourites. I could happily spend an hour hitting a ball down the centre of the court and never play a single point! I love doing the drills. Even when I'm struggling to keep control of the ball, I keep going. It's the only way to improve. And even at my age I get excited when I manage to do a drill well. You should have seen the smile on my face when I made 100 consecutive cross-court forehands with a single ball!

Well that's five I've thought of as I write. I'm sure there are more, or maybe just a more refined way of describing the ones I've outlined. Perhaps some don't transfer into other arenas, but I think most would.

What I've learnt from becoming a coach and being coached is that even the best coaches can't coach the uncoachable. If I'm not ready to learn, apply myself, practice and put everything into each session, then I'm in danger of becoming one of the uncoachables. I'm not ready to let that happen.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Oh no. It's nearly Christmas!

I must confess, Christmas is not one of my favourite times of the year. I know there are plenty of people who get really excited, look forward to the possibility of snow and can't wait to drag a tree into the house and cover it in tinsel and other assorted decorations. Not me. Sorry.

Having got that out in the open, the reason for writing this post is how we handle the story of Father Christmas. I read a short piece in the paper the other day about an article in a medical journal by two psychiatrists about the dangers of the Santa narrative in a post-truth world. Now it may have passed you by, but 'post-truth' is the word of the year for 2016. In a nutshell, post-truth is about discovering that we've been lied to about something and then in turn distrusting facts in favour of emotions when we make choices like whether to stay in the EU or elect a President. As a side note there was an interesting interview with Trevor Noah on the Today programme (Radio 4's morning news and current affairs programme) this morning about the Trump victory. If it's available on iPlayer it might be worth a listen.

Anyway, back to Santa and post-truth problems. The problem, according to the article comes when our children discover that the story isn't all we've been telling them. You get the drift without giving anyway any secrets! The argument follows: if our parents lied about that, then what else have they lied about? Can we really trust anything anyone tells us? This in itself presents a problem, but there's another issue with the traditional Father Christmas story. Only well-behaved children with a 12 month track record of being good will get presents and then only according to the disposable income of their parents. Apparently Santa is more of a capitalist than we might have first thought. Christmas, it turns out, is a meritocracy.

Now, let's shift tack for a moment and think about how we handle Christmas as Christian parents. What do we do with Santa? I never bought into the whole "Jesus is the reason for the season" mantra. He's the reason we celebrate, but that's because we redeemed a celebration rather than established one. We offered a new story, an alternative view of the world. Something we'd do well to remember. But we live with these two stories, the Jesus born in poverty and obscurity offering hope and redemption to anyone who wants it, and Santa, an all-seeing, judgmental old man who might have a jolly smile but who's been monitoring your behaviour all year round and will reward you accordingly.

Perhaps we need to set about redeeming Christmas again. Not in terms of putting Christ at the heart of it, but reframing Father Christmas in a narrative of grace that might allow us to move from that story to the gospel in a better way. What if Santa came and blessed you with a gift despite your past record? What if the point of his gift was to let you know that you were not forgotten, despite the evidence of your situation or circumstance?If my hazy memory of the St Nicholas story is anything to go by then this is closer that the "naughty or nice" narrative of more recent times.

As Christians, particularly as Evangelical Christians, we can struggle with these things. But what if we looked at them from a perspective that was rooted in grace and not just winning a doctrinal argument. Maybe that would mean we wouldn't have to face the post-truth questions quite as much.

My favourite Christmas service I was ever involved with came pretty early in our ministry days. We were in Newark and I came up with the idea to explore a conversation Jesus and Father Christmas might have had. I don't remember the details. I know they talked about how it felt to be thought about only once a year, to be expected to perform to amuse or convince people of their identity.

If I were doing it again this year maybe we'd try and work a more redeeming angle. Let Christmas be about getting what you haven't earned and what you don't deserve.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Post-vote protests

So, just like the EU Referendum, the US Presidential election has sprung a surprise that turns to to be rather less surprising when you think about it. There are protests in the streets and long hours of news programming asking questions and dissecting the data.

Whether these two events demonstrate some major shift in politics is yet to be seen. For some this is the ultimate expression of democracy and I've even heard it said that these two results are in fact a victory for democracy. I reserve judgement on that.

The problem for me is that history might well point to an inevitability about both polls, but as to their representation of democracy, well that's another matter. What we have seen clearly demonstrated through these events has seemed at times to be more like the dumbing down of democracy to the lowest common denominator. Playing on people's most basic fears and anxieties, stirring up concern where none existed, demonising those with whom we disagree, and downright lies masquerading as misquotations and slight exaggerations of the truth. No, I'm not so sure it's been a great year for democracy.

We need to remember that democracy is about having a voice, not just getting your way. This seems to have ben forgotten when we hear the winners telling the losers to shut up and get on with it. Stop whinging perhaps, but never stop making the counter argument. I was listening to Tim Farron the other day, and without putting words into his mouth, his argument post-leave was to reinforce this very point that while we are set to leave the EU there's still a pro-European argument to be made. The same is true post-Trump (although in an English culture that usually involves an apology, quiet look of embarrassment or an attempt to blame the dog!). Those who are protesting now and who feel let down by the wider population need to keep working to hold their elected officials to account.

The political establishment needs also to take note of the disaffection and dissatisfaction that continues to grow. They can no longer act and work in the same old ways. Politicians are never going to get it right for everyone. They know that. We know that (although sometimes both sides forget it). Helping people understand that being listened to is not ultimately expressed in doing what they say, but balancing all points of view and then acting in the best interests of the nation.

I hope that democracy learns from this year of upsets, if two votes can count as defining a year. I hope the process learns about the negative outcome of manipulation, threats and sound-bite politics. I hope we begin to become more engaged in the process of discussion and debate, honest praising of things done well and thoughtful criticism and challenge of those things that are not so good.

Only a small percentage of people vote ideologically, the rest vote according to how they feel at a given moment. We need to make sure that when they do, they are as well informed as they could possibly be.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Halloween: An unresolved question for the church?

Another Halloween passed us by without any knocks on the door. It helps when you're not at home, but that's not really the point! We've gone through various phases over the years. We've done the "We don't do this" phase, we've done the "Do you know what you're doing" phase and we've had sweets ready to give away too. All bases covered there then.

But it was a short conversation between two kids in one of the tennis squads I coach that caught my ear yesterday and started me thinking about our response to the 21st Century approach to October 31st. One of the kids must have asked a question about what another was doing for Halloween. An innocent enough question probably. The response of the other kid was short and to the point, "I'm a Christian. We don't do Halloween."

"We don't do Halloween." What exactly does that mean? Okay, so I can work that one out, but it just made me stop for a moment and wonder whether we're focussing on the right things when we teach our children to respond with what we don't do.

Of course there are times when "We don't do" is the right response, the correct approach. But is it always the case? Can we not offer an alternative, a fuller explanation. We don't want to be the people that offer a full explanation of the origins of the celebrations and the inaccuracies of current trends, but our children deserve to have our reasons better explained.

I'm not sure where I stand these days when it comes to deciding whether Halloween is just harmless fun or something more sinister. The commercialised and sanitised version of a festival that lines the supermarket shelves and ultimately someone's pockets is far removed from anything religious or spiritual. Perhaps some use it to celebrate stuff that is spiritually dangerous, but for most that's surely not the case.

There are times, or so to seems, that we are too concerned about the influence the world might have on us rather than the influence we might have on the world. I'm not sure that dressing up as a skeleton or a zombie is necessarily going to desensitise us to the very real presence of evil in our world and neither is it going to usher in some dark malevolent force. Tell me, is trick or treating a worse evil than abandoning migrant children in Calais? Does one lead to the other? Life and ethics are far more complicated than a simple linear cause and effect philosophy allows.

But whatever your view might be, what alternative do we offer? I'm not suggesting we have alternative parties, or maybe even go door to door offering sweets, giving something away. And anyway, would you trust someone who turned up at your door and said, "Would you like some free sweets?" No. I'm just concerned that we provide our children with a better explanation, a better response than simply, "We're Christians. We don't do Halloween."

Of course the interesting thing is that the kid asking the question just accepted the answer and we all moved on to the next drill. Perhaps I'm worrying too much!

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Has God's will been done?

This is another old draft post that never saw the light of day at the time of writing, but it's either time to delete it or publish it and I've chosen to do the latter.  It's far from a complete analysis or thought out presentation, but it is where my mind found itself at the time.

It's now four months on from the referendum, so although that was the initial focus of my thoughts I hope enough time has passed that if we end up with a discussion about anything, it's about how we understand the will of God and not what we feel about the vote.

In the aftermath of the referendum vote there are going to be many more politically and economically significant questions to be resolved that the theological ones concerning the idea of God's will. But for those of us who share a faith perspective, the theological questions remain (no pun intended).

Now I think it's important that we don't get drawn into some pointless debate about where this all stands in relation to the "end times". It's tough enough working out how to live in a way that honours God in the present without having to worry about the shape of things to come at the same time!

My concern is what I see as the sometimes deterministic view that appears to link the will of God with the sovereignty of God in an unhelpful way. At it's most simple I would argue that these two are quite separate. Let me explain.

To acknowledge that God is sovereign is to believe that he is ultimately in control. Maybe better still, it's to believe that nothing happens that he doesn't know about. It's actually quite hard to define without slipping towards some form of determinism that might suggest that God does in fact control everything and that nothing that happens happens without his direct involvement and decision.

God's will, however, is not the same as his sovereignty. And with that we slip into dangerous waters too. Dangerous because we are now in the realms of concepts like the permissive will of God, God's plan for my life, free will, can I miss God's will, am I living "second best", etc etc.  And let's not forget God's sovereign will!

Something like the referendum challenges some of our perspectives. If we've prayed that God's will is done and the vote comes in, irrespective of it's outcome, do we assume that somehow God's will has been done? Does that stand up to Biblical scrutiny? Put it another way, just because we've prayed, does that necessarily mean that the outcome must be God's will? You see the difficulty.

This is why I've used the word deterministic earlier. It's the assumption that one thing follows another as cause and effect, but to do that with our prayers and God's will is surely a reductionist view of how our relationship with God works and how prayer and the will of God interact. Think about the conundrum of the story of Adam and Eve. Was it God's will that they broke his one rule, or was it his will that they remain in the garden, learning and growing spiritually to maturity.

Personally I don't think our membership of the EU comes under God's will in quite the absolute way some people appear to think it does. We change governments regularly, does that suggest that God's will for our nation shifts from red to blue politically too? Of course not. At it's most simple God's will is that we do right things in right ways. No one political ideology has a monopoly on that.

Thinking about sabbaticals!

It's funny how things pop up now and again that prod you into action or simply generate a memory. It can be either positive or negative, you never know until it happens.

Having not written anything for months, not that there hasn't been stuff about which to write, I checked my account to see a "comment awaiting moderation". This is usually because someone has found my old post about my index to Songs of Fellowship, but not this time. This time it was a comment on an old post from 2008 about my impending sabbatical. If I'd done something different or not even bothered with the sabbatical, would things have turned out differently? I'm not sure and there's little point speculating about it now. It's enough to say that decisions were made that set the chain of events in motion that brought us here to this point and time and place.

It's interesting to think that it is 8 years since I had a sabbatical. Of course I'm one of the privileged few who got to take sabbaticals in the first place. Most people go through their whole working lives without ever getting the chance to take a prolonged period of time out to reflect or do some piece of research or simply do something completely different. Imagine how your life might change, how your view of the world could change or even your view of yourself if you could spend three months working overseas or in a shelter or reading? I wonder what some of our companies would look like if CEO's spent some time on the shop floor or if editors of certain newspapers spent a little time with refugees.

I can't imagine being able to take the time out for another sabbatical. If I were still in full-time ministry I'd have been overdue another break, but self-employment makes it hard. On the other hand, it's not beyond me to make the most of my flexible schedule and invest some time in doing some of those things a sabbatical gives you the opportunity to pursue.

Years ago, and I do mean years, I remember taking out a sheet of A4 and writing down everything I was doing and trying to put a timescale against. Was it something that was short term, medium term of long term? Did it have an end date? Then I wrote down the things I wanted to do and how long I though that would take. Then came the challenge of working the two lists together. That was difficult, but it enabled me to do two things at that particular time. One was completing a distance learning course to improve my counselling skills, the other was handing over some tasks and ministry things to others in order to free up time to concentrate in other areas.

I never produced anything academically worthwhile during my sabbaticals. I rarely read new stuff because I was always reading new stuff anyway. A sabbatical was a chance to switch off from some of that. Now, it's very different. Any sabbatical time will be very much shorter, a week maybe two at the most. Most people call them holidays! A rest, a change of scene, both great ingredients for a mini-sabbatical.

Perhaps I need a plan, perhaps I should write a guide on how to take a mini-sabbatical. I feel a self-help book emerging.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

A Little Facebook Conversation

I was once described as being ruthlessly committed to the doctrine of grace. Rather nice I thought and it was meant positively too. Grace trumps everything. Grace means you can look at another person and bless them even when they tear you apart. Grace means you can see in others the struggle to live in a context of faith even when they appear to be messing stuff up. This is neither being delusional about sin nor unwilling to address it and discipline it when appropriate. Grace is not a way of avoid ing conflict.

Some people lack grace, to state the obvious. some express their faith through generating conflict in the name of truth. Convinced of their absolute rightness in all things, they quickly condemn or call out others. I recently had a very short Facebook conversation with someone that illustrates this. Now normally I follow the advice that goes something like: Remember, it's actually possible to read something on Facebook with which you profoundly disagree, ignore it, and move on with your life. Experience tells us that getting into an online debate is often pointless and people rarely change their minds. But sometimes it's important to engage and express a contrary perspective, even if it's only to keep the conversation honest. Anyway, here's the statement to which I rose the other day:

Standing face to face with these false teachers, Jesus Christ the Son of God, called them "hypocrites", "blind guides, " "blind, " "whited sepulchres, " "serpents, " and "generation of vipers" (Matt. 23:23-34). Yet, we are told today that we are to fellowship with men whose doctrines are just as unscriptural as those of the Pharisees. Some who say they are Bible believing Christians insist on working with Roman Catholics and other assorted heretics. Yet, according to many, we are not supposed to rebuke them for their compromise. We are to MARK them and AVOID them. "Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them " (Rom. 16:17). Those whose conduct and teaching contradicts the Word of God are to be marked and to be avoided. This requires discernment and judgment in the light of the Bible. 
Here's my response:

 I'm not sure I really want to get involved in this petty debate, but a friend of mine posted it and I do feel that there are unanswered questions and issues that need to be thought through. I'm concerned that the original author seems to assume that simply quoting Scripture is equivalent to declaring truth. That's a dangerous stand to take. Think about it for a moment and you will realise that a verse quoted out of context can be a dangerous thing. Secondly, who are all the other assorted heretics? Are charismatics heretics because they accept the use of gifts or are those who are cessasionist heretics because they don't? Are the Seventh Day Adventists heretics because they choose to worship on a Saturday rather than a Sunday? Are Methodists heretics because they practice infant baptism rather than believers baptism? What about those who hold a pre, post or a-millenial view of the end times? Who are the heretics and who are orthodox? How about the role of women in leadership or the practice of ordination? How about Calvinist and Armenians? Once you start down the road of being the only one who tells the truth, everyone else becomes a heretic. Do you think that the primary focus of the Kingdom of God is to dot the i's and cross the t's of orthodox doctrine or to populate heaven? I'm not really expecting a response, in fact I'm not sure I even want one! I'm not going to get into a tit-for-tat debate. I just wanted to suggest that some thinking needs to be done. 
I didn't expect the reaction to be "Oh, gosh, you're right. How could I have been so narrow-minded and arrogant. Thank you for pointing that out, I'll rethink my attitudes." This was their response:

We do not use scripture out of context. We can back up with scripture why the cults we call out are indeed cults. If your preferred cult is among them let us show you the truth according to the word of God in His one true book. 
I'm somewhat intrigued by the idea of a "preferred cult". I wonder what the writer would have to say if he actually knew my background and experience, not that that makes me immune to error of course. I might just be an heretical theologian after all! Anyway, I thought a short snappy reply was in order and wondered if the injection of a little humour might help. Okay, so a little sarcasm.

I have a sneaky suspicion that you are going to be terribly disappointed at who God allows into heaven. Perhaps you need to have a quiet word with him just to be sure he's on the right track. I would hate for him to make a mistake! Btw, I've never given the idea of a preferred cult much thought. How does being vegetarian sound?
I got no further response!

Okay, so I probably wasn't as gracious as I could have been. Do you think they spotted the sarcasm in my last response?

I guess the question I struggle with is whether it's actually worth the effort to engage with such theological naivety. Sometimes it is because at least that puts another perspective into the comments and one would hope encourages others to engage their brains. One can but hope.

All the time these simplistic pronouncements are made about who is right and who is wrong; who is going to heaven and who is not; who is a cult and who is not, the mission of God is left unattended as we focus our attention on who we think should be excluded rather than upon God's great desire for who he wants included.