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.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Friday 9th September. Time to move Parliament and Grammar Schools

Two things have caught my eye this week in the news. The first was the announcement of the cost to restore the Palace of Westminster and the second was the government's plan to re-introduce Grammar Schools.

The Westminster building restoration is an interesting one and I read quite a few comments about it when an online petition popped up suggesting that a new parliament building more fit for purpose should be built elsewhere in the country. I think that's an idea worth considering. Stepping aside for a moment from the high cost of restoring the current building, moving to a new location and a purpose-built facility might not be a bad idea. Of course it might be too radical an idea for MP's to take. But just think about the potential upside of having a parliament centrally located in the country. Accommodation could be purpose-built, no more need for second homes, easier access to the wider constituency and a move away from a perceived Souht-East, London-centric bias. Moving Parliament to somewhere like Leeds or Sheffield might just be the radical kind of thing we need.

I doubt that the institution will go for it. Too many traditions. But what an opportunity to do something different and leave some of the stuff behind that at time seems to hold back progress. A new parliament, a new second chamber, a new democracy? Food for thought.

And then there's the Grammar School debate. Announcements to be made, opportunities to be had. Really? I came through the Grammar School system. It is not the panacea this government appears to want it to be. The problem remains selection. There were without doubt kids in the lowest "set" for maths for example who were easily being out performed by kids at the local Secondary Modern School. Their future would be decided by the old CSE and ours by the old 'O' Level (or GCE). Is that what we want for Secondary Education in the 21st Century?

Theresa May says that school selection happens by house price these day, but is going back to an 11+ the solution? House prices are high in the catchment area of the perceived good schools. What if we invested in making all schools good schools? By that I don't necessarily just mean academically good. I just wonder to whom has Mrs May been talking. It's easy to look at the evidence and presume that Grammar schools are the answer, but surely the question is far more complex than simple charts of GCSE results can provide as an answer. Reintroducing Grammar schools limits the choice of school by exam rather than house price. It simply shifts the goal posts.

If my memory is telling me the truth, then as I recall the last two years of my primary education was all about preparing for the 11+. It was going to be the defining moment of my educational life. Passing would ensure opportunity and success, failure would consign me to a second level life. I even remember the teacher coming after the first set of tests (the old 11+ was spread out over two or maybe even three days) and announcing that none of us was likely to pass given our performance the first day. Looking back I can't see how he would have known that unless he'd marked the papers the previous night and I don't think that is how it worked. Whatever it was, it certainly wasn't the most useful or encouraging approach.

So I'm far from convinced that Grammar Schools are the answer to our educational system's weaknesses. Perhaps a proper evaluation of the Comprehensive system needs to be undertaken to assess how best we can serve every pupil and not just those who are either blessed with academic skills or whose parents can afford to to buy a house in the favoured catchment area. Add to that a greater sense of the value of education across society and not just as a vehicle for social mobility and maybe we can move towards a truly comprehensive form of secondary education.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

The agony of faith

I started writing this post some time ago when yet another picture appeared on Facebook declaring that "religion" was the cause of all the violence in the world perpetrated by terrorists. I find myself wanting to shout back that it's simply not true and that if only people would stop and think for a minute then they wouldn't post such inane and stupid stuff. But I won't do that because I'm caught between personal outrage and the reductionist perspective at work and the desire to be "full of grace". I'm desperate for people to discover the grace of God for themselves and winning arguments over petty mudslinging memes is not the way. Perhaps this commitment to grace and desire to find a way to point people to God is what creates the agony of faith that I seem to experience.

I've been contemplating writing some reflections on the Psalms and calling them The Agony of Faith. It's an idea that has been in my head for a while. Agony because if anyone tells you being a person of faith is easy and comfortable, then I'm either seriously lacking something or their experience is not rooted in the same world as is mine.

I find faith hard. Not necessarily believing, but just making sense of life sometimes. Faith is not easy. I get angry too. Angry at the way faith is often portrayed as a crutch for the weak-minded, or an opt-out for those who are less enlightened.

I find myself angry at the portrayal of faith as the root of the world's problems as if terrorism never had a home in political ideology. I grew up in the 20th century. A time when left and right wing politics resulted in millions of deaths. But no one seems to remember that when someone using their faith as an excuse detonates a bomb in a crowded market. I remember planes being downed, pubs being blown up, hostages taken (and sometimes killed), all in the name of revolution or communism or supporting some right wing dictatorship. Faith does not have a monopoly on fanaticism. If you want an example, think about Stalin's purges or the Khmer Rouge. How about the genocide in Rwanda or the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.

If that is not enough, the triumphalism and selfishness of some expressions of 21st century faith also get me down. Do I really need to "feel" God's presence in order for it to have been a good worship experience? Exactly what does it feel like anyway? I remember preaching a sermon once based around the idea that worship was always an appropriate response irrespective of the circumstances. It is never a case of worship when you feel something.

So faith is hard. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. It's open to misinterpretation as well as misrepresentation. We get things wrong. When I read my Bible I read about struggles as well as triumphs, mistakes as well as successes. When someone tells me they can't believe in God because of all the bad stuff that happens and because of all the unanswered questions or because of things that simply make no sense, I understand. As for me, it can only ever make sense if God exists because that means there is someone to answer for it, some to address the the basic question we have: Why?

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Too many Pastor-Teachers in Leadership?

I've been doing some reflecting recently and some thinking about the future too. In fact we both have. Being busy can get in the way of planning the "what next" stage of life to the point where you suddenly find yourself in your own future without any real idea how you got there. That sound pretentiously profound to me, but the point is that you can just drift into things and it's good to stop every so often and do some reflecting and thinking. So that's what we're doing.

We wouldn't be giving away anything by saying that eventually we will probably move back to Bedford. Ally and David seemed settled there and it was probably the place we felt most at home during the 20 years of moving around the country as manse family. The question is more a when rather than an if. Of course it brings up all sort of other questions, mainly about where exactly we would look to live. But there's more to it than that.

We spent 8 years in Cotton End serving the church there. We learnt so much during that time and explored so many things. I still can't quite get my head around how willing the church family were to experiment and grapple with new ideas and opportunities. Moving away was quite a wrench. The next 2 years would turn out to be both the most difficult and challenging 2 years, and they would also mark the end of full-time ministry for us. What we did learn in that period was the God was challenging us and shaping us in quite a different way and that the legacy model of church was no longer a sustainable model for us. That isn't to say that it can't work, it's just that we could no longer do what was required. Okay, so I never could do what was required, I simply wasn't wired up to fulfil that sort of of role.

Which brings me to the point of this post. I think too many of our churches, yes I still see myself as part of the church, are lead by pastors. Looking at Paul's leadership traits in Ephesians it strikes me that too many pastor-teachers (if you want to combine the roles) lead churches. These good folk have all the skills and gifts to get alongside people, to comfort them, guide them, teach them and encourage them. The church needs them. But does it need them to be the primary leaders?

When you look at Paul's list you have to ask where are the apostles and prophets and evangelists? Church leadership is a multi-faceted process. It needs all of these gifts. Perhaps the problem is that we've elevated pastor-teacher above the rest and in so doing have actually done the church a dis-service. I think we've also excluded many good leaders because they don't have those pastor-teacher skills.

I'm not saying that a pastor-teacher can't have vision or can't be an effective leader. I just think we've missed out on so much by promoting one dimension of leadership to ordained office at the relegation of others. When we only put a pastor-teacher in charge, then we get the same result every time. We get legacy model church because that's what legacy model church looks like. It's pastor-teacher lead. It meets on Sundays and does worship. It produces Bible study notes for house groups. All good things, but not all that the church is called to be. Apostles and prophets and evangelists are are pain in the side of the legacy model of church because they see something different. We need the pain. We need leaders who aren't necessarily gifted pastorally or even as great teachers but who see things differently.

 If the church is ever really to leave the building then it will be because visionaries and pioneers, the apostles and prophets and evangelists, will take us there. The pastor-teachers will still be important, but they won't be leading the charge.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

What can football learn from rugby?

It's easy to compare the England football team and the rugby team and point out the differences. Failure versus success makes for an easy target. But amidst the humour and banter, there's an interesting perspective to be considered. After a remarkably successful tour following a Grand Slam win of the annual European Six Nations, England rugby is setting higher goals.

Okay so far, but this is what Eddie jones said in an interview post beating the team previously ranked 2 in the world (England have taken that spot now):

“I’m going to go on the Tour de France for a bit and watch how Orica GreenEDGE prepare, probably next weekend,” Jones said. “I’m keen to have a look at what they do because I’ve got to get better. If the team’s not consistent, then our coaching’s not good enough. I’ve got to get better and our coaching staff have got to get better. The next two months are about us getting better and then planning our strategy going forward.
Read that again: “I’m keen to have a look at what they do because I’ve got to get better. If the team’s not consistent, then our coaching’s not good enough. I’ve got to get better and our coaching staff have got to get better.

I don't wish to draw a conclusion about the management of English football, after all Eddie Jones is not your typical rugby coach, but his example is interesting. I wonder if the new England football manager will seek out EJ to see what he can learn from someone who, in a few short months, has begun a process of change that has produced some amazing results.

There's talk in the media about how damaged the England players are over their performance and consequent exit form the Euros, perhaps they need to talk to their rugby counterparts who failed abjectly less than 12 months ago and have now done what South Africa were the last to over 40 years ago and that no other England side have ever done as far as I know.

Whatever is wrong with England's football team, players and coaches could do worse than send a bit of time with their Twickenham cousins.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Post Referendum thoughts

If some of what I've seen and read over the last few days is true, then surely the saddest part of the whole EU Referendum vote is hearing people who voted leave say they are now worried about the consequences of that vote. "I didn't think my vote would count" is something of an indictment of the system as much as it might be of the approach some took to voting. With no coherent vision on offer from anyone with regard to the future, we're left in this somewhat bizarre situation of apparently having voted for something most people aren't sure they really wanted. How very strange.

Even stranger is that the petition for a re-run seems to have been started by a leave voter. Not that a second referendum on the same issue is likely, or even welcome. And I say that as a remain voter. The only place for a second vote as far as I can see is when and if a clear vision, post Article 50 negotiations, is laid out and we are then asked whether the is what we truly want. But then again, I'm not sure that's even possible.

In the end we were probably asked the wrong question, in the wrong, at the wrong time. The leave campaign capitalised on years of negative press and comment about the EU. About who made decisions and how, about rules and regulations that were either never actually on the books or were only ever ideas suggested and rejected. We've always had an uneasy relationship with the EU and the silence from MEPs before and during this debate hasn't helped. Where were the positive voices? Too late now I'm afraid.

And what of the "promises" and "threats"? George Osborne tries to settle the markets by suggesting things won't be as bad as he kept telling us they would be, Nigel Farage says that the £350M we could invest in the NHS wasn't true. No wonder people have such a low view of politics and politicians.

There has been quite a lot of comment about the need to simply get on with it. Accept the outcome and figure out the way forward outside of the EU. But I'm not sure the debate ends there quite just yet. After all, the outcome of the referendum is only advisory, it's not legally binding. Parliament could decide to reject it. That would, I assume, be unprecedented, and who would be brave enough to do such a thing?

Maybe there are some good things that will come out of the mess. Perhaps the EU will take seriously the need to do some deep reforming, maybe there will be debates about how the free movement of people works across a range of contras with vastly differing social policies and systems. Perhaps there will be greater clarity and understanding of what it means to be a member state, what responsibilities and opportunities come with being part of a greater community. Sadly we seem to have chosen not be part of that process.

Perhaps we might also see a change in our one political landscape. If we've got our country back, and I'm not sure we have, (or to be more accurate I'm not convinced the country some people think we're getting back is the country I wanted back), then how will the politics of this new era reflect that? Post upheaval and leadership elections, will there be a greater engagement between politicians and people? Who knows? I suspect we'll drift quietly back into the stars quo of hoping of the best, wanting to believe what those seeking election are telling us, and then expressing our inevitable;e disappointment when it turns out that once again things aren't quite what they seemed to be. That might sound cynical, even overly negative, but it takes an enormous amount of effort to seize the opportunity of change and stay with it.

So, to be positive, I think we will survive outside the EU. It's not where I wanted us to be. I hoped we had bigger hearts and greater vision. To leave just seems too narrow and somewhat selfish to me. If we do have a second vote, then I hope it will focus on more positive things than we have endured through this campaign. And I hope that in the future we will see less protest voting because everyone will realise that every vote matters.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Polling Day is coming

So it's polling day in the great referendum tomorrow. Time for some last day thoughts.

If I'm really honest I'm far from convinced that the question of our membership of the EU can be settled by a national referendum. The issue is too complex for a simplistic in/out vote. I'm not saying that the electorate in general is incapable of understanding the nuances and complexities of membership, but the reductionist campaigning has failed completely to debate the issues in anything like the depth needed to inform anyone.

What we have been left with in tomorrow's vote is a choice between our least and worst fears. We've been told all sorts of worrying stuff from both sides that has little substance and have been allowed to continue to believe some ridiculous stuff about the EU that simply isn't true when you look at the wider context of what it means to be part of the community. I've said before that there is much that needs fixing, but that doesn't make it a bad idea in the first place.

My hope is that we vote to remain and then work hard to build a better system of European government and cooperation. I also believe we need to get better at letting people know what it means to be a member state, how to take our membership seriously and to embrace the responsibilities that come with being part of that wider community.

I would have liked to have seen a far more positive campaign to remain rather than the end of the world scenario that has been peddled these last few months. I do not see our future as a nation being under threat by remaining. On the contrary, the false ideas of what it means to be a sovereign nation poses a bigger threat to our identity with it's apparent desire to be isolated and insulated. Where does "controlling our own borders, making our own laws" etc really take us?

My fear is that the lack of a positive edge to the remain campaign has fuelled the leavers argument and people will vote out because they've been sucked into believing the rhetoric about bureaucrats and red tape. Yes there are some annoying regulations, but annoying doesn't equal unnecessary or unhelpful. And just because we think other countries pay no attention to the rules and regulations is no reason to suggest that they get in our way!

If the European Union is going to work we need to be part of the solution. My family, my work, my community are all richer because of life within the EU (and I don't mean financially). We get to travel without too much fuss. Although we're unlikely to adopt the Euro currency, you can't deny it's benefit when you travel through continental Europe. Imagine or remember the days when you had to carry four or five different currencies if you went on a European tour. I know that wouldn't disappear, but my point is that for all the problems, the EU has been a good thing and if we could only stop moaning about it for a while it might become something even better.

Don't say this!

The Christianity Today ( website, in the guise of Leadership Journal, posted a piece about the five dumb things Christians say when evil strikes. It's worth a read. Here are the list of five things to avoid saying:

  • This is an opportunity for the church
  • This is God's wrath for...
  • Did you hear...
  • I don’t agree with their lifestyle, (or politics, or religion, or…) but…
  • Everything happens for a reason
When you take the time to draw breath and consider these things, you begin to realise that such statements are not the words of a faith rooted in the grace and compassion of God. So instead of saying something stupid try weeping with those who weep, mourning with those who mourn.

Read the article here.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Polar A360

Having had my Polar Loop for a year, I decided to take the plunge and upgrade to a more sophisticated activity monitor. I did a bit of research and in the end decided to stay with Polar and get the A360.

Now, if you're a runner or triathlete you will undoubtedly want something more sophisticated, but if you're just interested in getting some data about how much activity you're doing, then the A360 looks like a good choice.

The Loop was useful, but the A360 gives you more options. The basic settings for what constitutes your active day stays the same, but now you have access to heart rate data courtesy to the wrist based heart rate monitor. For a more accurate heart rate you have the option to pair, via Bluetooth, the  device to a chest strap. The Loop also did that, but I never actually tried it.

Where the A360 scores over the Loop is the ability to choose a training type and capture the associated data. The display will show you heart rate, training zone, calorie burn etc. From my point of view, the training types are limited. I have to choose "other indoor" or "other outdoor" and then change it afterwards via the 'phone app to tennis or swimming. On the plus side, it can make me look like I sprint 10K on a regular basis!

One of the other positives for me is that the screen is easier to see in bright sunlight when compared to the Loop. This means it's easy to use as a watch when I'm coaching or just wanting to know what time it is. The adjustable strap is also a plus. I can wear it a little loose and tighten it up when I want heart rate monitoring. The clasp, two t-profile stubs that simply press into the holes in the strap, can come unclipped if you catch it on something, but it hasn't come off completely yet, so I'm not overly concerned by it.

The A360 will also vibrate to let you know you have an incoming call or text message or other notification on your 'phone.

There have been some negative reviews of the A360. People have experienced issues with synchronising data and with the unit and strap separating. There have also been some issues with the USB port cover. I've only had mine for a few weeks and so far I've not experienced any problems at all. Whether the syncing issues arise from the device itself or the 'phone or tablet being used isn't clear. My iPhone 5S seems to work fine.

Overall I'm quite pleased with my new activity monitor. The watch looks smart and fits neatly on my wrist. It's comfortable to wear and easy to use. At around £140 it's neither cheap nor expensive when compared to other similar devices.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Is enough, enough?

When did enough become not enough? When did faith become about abundance rather than sufficient? When did knowing that faith can move mountains become inadequate, demanding a demonstration in order to prove its veracity?

I got to thinking about these things when I saw an advert on a website I've used a lot over the years, particularly when I was preparing sermons regularly. "Life-changing messages to give you abundant faith" was the offer, and it made me think is that really what I want, or even need. I need enough faith to get through today, rather than abundant faith. I need enough faith to honour God in the things I'll be doing today. Tomorrow is literally another day and we can deal with that when it comes. For now, get me through today.

I read Psalm 139.
You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.
This is enough. To believe this gets me through the day. To have the faith to believe that I am known and loved by the creator and sustainer of the universe is more than enough to make it through the darkest of days. At least I think it ought to be so. Of course it isn't always.

Some days I crave more action on behalf of the God who says he loves me but who appears to be somewhat silent when I ask questions. When I seek answers and interventions and nothing appears to happen, then I want more.

But maybe today I settle for enough.

Monday, May 23, 2016

A Disappointing Debate

Well, so far the EU debate has been predicable and rather disappointing. When the date for the referendum was announced I was hoping that the somewhere in the discussion we're get to hear some thoughtful reflections and the purpose and direction of of the Union. But all we seem to have had is argument and counter-argument about money and sovereignty, migration and borders.

It's a mostly scare tactic driven debate, with each side making seemingly unsubstantiated claims about the impact on our economy and legislative processes. Financial forecasts are notoriously unreliable, and since we've been in the EU for 40 years it's hard to say whether we would have pursued political and legislative change in areas like the environment in the same way had we not been Europeans. Given that no country has ever left the EU, there's also no comparison against which we can even remotely reflect on possible future outcomes for our own.

So I come back to my fundamental ideological questions about the nature and direction of the community. Is the direction of the EU community a direction that we want to go? If not, then maybe we should leave, but if we leave we have no possible say in shaping that direction. That could be a poor choice in the long term.

While we let rhetoric of the leave and remain campaigns to focus on migration, border control, economic guesswork and sovereignty as if we're flooded with migrants, or not; ruled by Brussels based unelected eurocrats, or not; destined to be out in the cold when it comes to trade deals, or not, we're missing the point.

Do we want to be part of a wider European community in which we share responsibility for making decisions or do we want to be isolated? We can't have both.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Changing the way we approach failure and set backs

Having finished reading Black Box Thinking, it strikes me that there is a lot still to be learned about the way we deal with failures and set backs. Putting on the news this morning, the big talking point was the incident at Old Trafford. The response to the evacuation and abandonment of the game was full of the expected puns, Red faces at Old Trafford, and the language of instant blame. Apparently the local Police and Crime Commissioner has called it an "outrage" and there's going to be a full enquiry.

Well the enquiry is  clearly a good idea, but an outrage? Well I'm not so sure that's the right description, and what's more it immediately puts everyone in defensive mode. Why not start from lessons learned? Clearly the evacuation was handled pretty well, and the security obviously worked because they found the suspect package and death with it. Yes, a lot of people were very inconvenienced, but the system worked. Shouldn't we at least acknowledge that.

Somebody missed something after the training event. That much is obvious, but surely the way forward is to look at the protocols involved in accounting for the training devices and adjust them. Learn a lesson for the future, don't start getting outraged and look for someone to blame.

We've just got back from a holiday in Portugal. Yesterday was a long day of travelling, and while not in the league of an abandoned football match because of a suspicious package left by mistake, we had our fair share of frustrations along the way. It felt like we spent most of the day in a queue of some sort.

Faro airport is not the best equipped international airport I've ever travelled through, and it's not the worst, even of those I've experienced. Long delays getting people through passport control and security meant our flight home was delayed by almost an hour. There was quite a lot of British outrage at the "shambles" and "chaos" at the airport. We had issues when we arrived too, mainly with passport control again. Faro has about 5 of the new biometric passport readers on both inward and outward sides. Sadly only three were working, and one crashed. Anyway people got stuck at passport control and we missed our slot for take-off and had to wait for the delayed passengers and then for a new slot. I dare say there will be a few strongly worded letters and emails being written this mooring to the trail company complaint about all this and demanding compensation.

But who will be looking at the events and trying to learn lessons and then fix the problems? At Stansted there were 15 biometric gates and we still had to queue and there were still problems. While adding more terminals would clearly help, it's not the whole solution.

The interesting thing was that when we were on the aircraft waiting for the delayed passengers, the announcements made were very clearly blaming ground staff at the airport, just to make sure we understood who was to blame. It's nice to know it's always someone else's fault! Okay, so in this case the issue was with the airport, but I'd rather hope that the travel companies and airlines would look at how they can support the airport, perhaps with investment, to add more terminals, and to make sure they are working. Rather than blaming the people, look for a solution that will support the future use of the airport.

So Black Box Thinking is worth reading if it makes you change the way you see and deal with failure. If you are not willing to become a learner or if you're not interested in solutions that don't start with "who can I blame", then maybe you should seek out a book about how to complain instead.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Worth Watching

You may or may not like either Bono or Eugene Peterson, but if you're at all interested in hearing two people talk about the Psalms with honesty and thoughtfulness, then you might just enjoy this.

Bono on the Psalms and Christians:

"The psalmist is brutally honest about the explosive joy that he's feeling and the deep sorrow or confusion," Bono said. "And it's that that sets the Psalms apart for me. And I often think, 'God, well why isn't church music more like that?'"

Bono didn't hold back in what he wanted to see more from Christian artists.
"Why I'm suspicious of Christians is because of this lack of realism. And I'd love to see more of that in art, and in life, and in music," he said.
"I would love if this conversation would inspire people who are writing these beautful voices and these beautiful gospel songs, write a song about their bad marriage, write a song about how they're pissed off at the government, because that's what God wants from you, the truth. Weigh the truth ... the truth will set you free. It will blow things apart."

For his part, Eugene Peterson talks about finding "a way to cuss without cussing", which is what the Psalms do.

This is more than a theologian and a singer talking, there's a degree of profound reflection and challenge for all of us in this short conversation.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Don't over-complicate the analysis

Reflecting on Black-Box thinking got me thinking about the process of analysis in which we become involved when we're trying to improve. It made me wonder if we don't sometimes over-complicate the process or more likely over-analyse things.

When I go to my practice sessions I usually go with a plan of sorts. I'll often think about it as I drive to the courts (you knew I was talking about tennis didn't you!). I might think about how I've been playing and what I want to try or where I want to focus my practice. We tend to do a series of drills planned by the coach, and I usually have something simple, almost generic in mind. It might be footwork, it might be contact point, it might be balance. It might even be a decision to hit cross-court or focus on my backhand.

I rarely have more than one or two things in my mind, and there are times when the plan goes out the window because the session opens the door to something I hadn't thought about. Other times I'm hitting so poorly that I have to ditch the plan in favour of focussing on the really basic principles of hitting the ball!

The things is, when you're actually playing a match, there isn't time to do detailed error detection and progressive correction. You just have to fix it, change something, find a way to get things working. That's one of the great joys and challenges of a game like tennis and also one of its great frustrations!

So keep it simple. Fix one thing. Change one thing. Don't fill your mind with all sorts of stuff. Don't try and check your footwork, body-work and racquet work in at the same time. Get your feet moving first, then your body and then your racquet.

I met a golf pro once who used to talk about the guy that sits at the front of your head and messes with your swing by asking if your grip is right, your take-away smooth, the club head doing whatever it's supposed to do. Too many things to think about. He used to say, "Give him one job to do." That one job might be to make sure you focus on the contact point until after the ball has gone, or it might be to get yourself balanced before you swing.

You'll be amazed at the difference it can make when you don't over complicate the process. After all, if you get the process right, everything else will fall into place. The ball will go where you mean to send it. Outcome follows process, so always focus on making the process work, and the best way to do that is by keep it as simple an uncomplicated as you possibly can.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Currently reading: Black-Box Thinking

I've just started reading Matthew Syed's "Black-Box Thinking" alongside Gray Cook's "Movement". Clearly two very different books, but it's good to be able to swap between them. In the past I've had anything up to 10 or more books on the go at any given time, mainly when I was researching and preparing. These days two is enough, although a new book dropped through the door today all about fascia and I'm tempted to have a dip into that. Oh, and I'm re-reading John Gibbons book about the glutes.

Black-Box Thinking is an interesting read so far. I'm only about 10% of the way through the book, so barely scratching the surface, but apart from maybe one too may anecdotal stories (I skimmed through the last on about WW2 bomber planes, but read enough to pick up the salient point of the story), I've enjoyed what I've read so far. The basic premise of the book concerns how we learn or don't learn from failure and errors.

The contrast is made between aviation and healthcare. Aviation has a very open culture that encourages the reporting of errors and failures and their investigation. The reason is simple enough: failures are data rich and learning opportunities for future failure or error avoidance. Through a series of stories this becomes very clear and very positive. Healthcare, by  contrast, is more inclined to conceal its errors and failures. The reasons for this are complex to the extent that they involve issues around litigation, perception of success and competence etc.

I'm not quite sure what you'd use to describe the opposite of Black-box thinking, but we probably all recognise when we see or hear. The other day I was listening the radio and they were discussing education. A report had suggested that the development of a northern powerhouse might be undermined by the apparent failures in education, particularly in secondary education. "Who's to blame?" was the question, a question typical of non-black-box thinking. It's a search for the scapegoat, and even those answering the question were guilty of the same pattern of thinking. One side says it's poor teachers, one side suggests it's poor leadership and eventually someone blames the government. Very little was said about solutions and opportunities to move forward. There was always a reason why it wasn't possible to do something positive. Maybe to was the way the discussion was arranged, maybe it was just a symptom of the kind of thinking the book describes as a closed loop approach.

It does make you think about your own approach to failure. As you know, I play tennis. Sometimes I play well, sometimes I don't. I lose a lot! I don't like losing, but it's part of the game and the simple truth is that there are a lot of tennis players who are very much better players than I am. I have played with and against another player who has been taking lessons for as long as I have and as regularly. When we first started playing we were pretty even. He would win some, I would win some. More recently I've beaten him consistently and, it has to be said, quite heavily (6-1, 6-0, that kind of thing). I've clearly improved more than he has. I think I know why.

Firstly, I own my errors and failures. I try not to make excuses, even if there's a valid reason why I played poorly. I know it's down to my technical execution of the shot and/or my choice of shot that lets me down. I also know when I'm playing a better player or a player who might not be significantly better, but who is certainly more experienced. I try to take my failure and process it into what I need to do in order to do better next time. It's a long process and it takes times, effort and application to practice the right things in the right way.

Secondly, I practice. I work as hard as I can to improve.

In contrast, my fellow student doesn't seem to play much differently now compared to how he played when we first met. He still makes the same errors, and he still makes as many as he did 4 or 5 years ago. When we talk about the game his approach is often to blame the court surface, the weather conditions, balls, the strings, his grip or his failure to "go for it", which usually means hitting it as hard as he can.

Perhaps that makes me more of a black-box thinker. I'll keep reading the book to find out!

Monday, February 22, 2016

Early thoughts on the European referendum

With the date of the in-out referendum announced I'm bracing myself for the long campaign and all the contradictory information that will assail us over the coming months. Already we've had Michael Gove saying Europe gets in the way of his being able to do his job day to day (some might suggest there are other reasons) and Michael Fallon saying it's not quite so.

Being part of a wider european community will undoubtedly have an impact on how we do things.  Any form of coalition does. Some have been positive some negative, often dependent upon your perspective. For example, most of our environmental legislation comes from Europe. If you're an organisation or company that would rather not have to contribute to clean air or water, then you might consider the regulations an interference. Similarly you might consider some of the regulations about working hours and conditions an unwelcome hurdle, blaming Europe for the red tape that you feel restricts your business.

The question we have to ask is whether we would have these regulations and rights, whether environmental or in other areas, were it not for our memberships of the European Union. Perhaps, as Stanley Johnson said on the news this morning, there will always be a price to pay for being part of a european community, but there is also great benefit too.

There's no doubt that the EU has morphed into something other than the free trade area that it was back in the 70's when we first joined and first had an in-out vote. There's also little doubt that there are many things about the present organisational structure of the community that need to be addressed and some questions about the overall destination of the process that need answers. Are we ultimately headed towards a United States of Europe? Is that what we want as Europeans not just as the UK?

I also wonder why there are not some simple principles about entitlements to things like benefits and health care that are either pan-european, i.e. a basic level of both applied across the community, or some structure that means your entitlement is based on your country of origin. Perhaps this already exists, perhaps these issues only actually exist in the minds of those who want us out. Perhaps the benefits and health questions are actually just red herrings in the debate.

I hope that over the next few months we get some real data and some real facts that make it possible to make a thoughtful decision rather than one based upon headlines and fear-driven speculations.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The China Study

So, what is the China Study I hear you ask! Well, it's a reasonably long text about nutrition and heath developed from a series of studies over a number of years. The big question is: Is it true? If it is, then there are some very serious and potentially life-changing decisions to be made by all of us about what we eat.

The book details a lot of information, which is fine but it is only presented from one perspective as you might expect and that perspective soon becomes pretty clear. Animal protein is the enemy, go vegetarian to avoid the major diseases of a typical Western diet.

If you do a quick search of the internet you will find plenty of counter arguments suggesting that the conclusions drawn ion the book are far from exact and even possibly unreliable. In the end you will either have to decide for yourself, based on doing a lot more research and background reading, or you will decide to trust the authors or dismiss them.

But before you do, you might want to do two things. First, you might want to dip into the book and read it. Second, you might want to think about the broader issues of diet and lifestyle that seem to precipitate the health issues we face and ask your own questions. Perhaps the book's conclusion are too narrow, too unproven, but to deny that our way of eating is linked to the state of our health would be to bury our heads in the proverbial sand.

Some of the research quoted is fascinating, and if true it is certainly cause for rethinking our eating habits. Generally we al know that a diet needs to be balanced, that fibre is important, fruit and vegetable are essential and that calorie dense, nutrient poor foods are bad for us. We just don't know what data is reliable and who to believe. Even the 5-a-day principle has no discernible scientific basis that I can track down. There's even talk about it ought to be 7 or 10.

So if the China Study does only one thing and that thing is to make us all think more carefully about how and what we eat, then that's a good thing. Maybe the jury is still out about the veracity of the data and the conclusions, but the fact remains that we are dying from diseases that are directly linked to our eating habits and lifestyle choices. Something needs to change, and it needs to change pretty soon.

Monday, January 18, 2016


I was watching the news this morning and they were talking, albeit briefly, about the impending debate in the House of Commons about Donald Trump. This debate has been precipitated by a petition. Now that might not be a bad thing, government actually responding to the concerns of the people, but there are things about it that do raise some concerns.

I remember having a conversation with a local MP many years ago about petitions and how they were viewed by politicians in contrast to a personal letter. I don't remember the details exactly, but the gist of the conversation was that a personal letter carried far more weight than a petition. The MP suggested that it was possible to get 100's if not 1000's of signatures for just about anything, whereas a personal letter said someone had taken the time to sit down and write something. And, if one person took the time, they probably represented the view of a potentially sizeable portion of the constituency, whereas people might just sign a petition simply to get rid of you form the doorstep or move on in the shopping centre.

Well, things have changed, and everyday we get emails and social media requests to sign a petition of some sort. Some I sign. Many I don't. That's me exercising my democratic right and not me not caring by the way!

And therein lies the problem. If I don't sign am I out of step with popular opinion, am I uncaring or uninterested? We judge very quickly and we are in danger, or so it seems to me, of creating a culture where we only ever listen to the voices of those with whom we agree and take immediate offence with those who think differently. Have we lost the ability to debate and discuss ideas and issues?

I'm not sure it's a good use of parliamentary time to be debating Donald Trump. A man whose hair looks like it's been styled by the creator of shredded wheat or the Brillo pad is difficult to take seriously in any context. The fact that he could become the next President of the most powerful nation on the planet would be comical if it were not so worryingly possible. Listening to his comments about not having time to be "politically correct" simply confirms his status as, well fill in the blank yourself.

On the other hand, listening to Natalie Bennett (the leader of the Green Party) this morning, I'm willing to accept that there's a case for the discussion. That's the value of listening to both sides of a debate. I guess in the end that if it takes a petition to help us all engage with the issues, then more power to the petition. But beware the petition that polarises the issue into who's right and who's wrong reduction of complex questions.

I suspect in the end that Mr T won't be banned from visiting the UK. I just hope that if and when he does he gets asked the tough questions and gets well and truly grilled over the things he's had to say.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Failing better

For those who don't instantly recognise this forearm, it belongs to Stan Wawrinka. The tattoo reads: Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better. It's a quote from Samuel Beckett.

It's an interesting quote to have for a sportsperson because most people would expect something about winning or being the best. This is about perseverance. It's about hard work and determination to be the best that you can be despite the disappointments that come your way.

Tennis is a solitary sport and the nature of the competitive side of the game is that most players lose most of the tournaments in which they play. Losing is a familiar feeling in tennis for all but the very best. I've been told that Feliciano Lopez was once asked how he dealt with losing. His reply was simple: It happens every week.

Of course this doesn't make losing easier to take, you don't have to like losing in order to be able to deal with it and learn from it. The easy option is either to give up or simply choose only to play people you can beat. But that gets boring.

Stan Wawrinka recognises that he is not a Federer, Nadal or Djokovic, men of exceptional ability, but he's still a Grand Slam champion twice over. I'm not sure he'd have done that had he not been able to embrace the philosophy of trying again and "failing better" as he did so.

I recognise that I am very fortunate to get the opportunity to practice my tennis as much as I do. I'm also lucky that while I sometimes find the practice frustrating because I'm not succeeding at what I'm trying to do, I never get bored by the repetition of what we do. I truly enjoy the drills. I know that these drills will help me fail better and hopefully one day actually hit my goal and win more often. I remind myself of these things when I lose, which is more often than not, and I get up and go again. I did that because I'm not ready to settle for where I am currently.

I could get all philosophical now and point out that there are lessons for life in there. We give up too easily when things get hard. Gym memberships lie unused, fitness equipment gather dust in the cupboard, books are left unread, diets are unaltered, goals remain distant unattainable dreams. From a Christian perspective, discipleship remains dormant, prayer is half-hearted. The list goes on.

Beckett's words serve as a reminder that every day is a new opportunity to make a better attempt at whatever it is for which we are reaching. Whether it's a more reliable backhand, a better, healthier diet or a more consistent prayer life. It's just a matter of making  a disciplined choice to try again even if that means inevitable failure again. The only difference is that you fail better because you try harder.

I've done my 100-day 10k steps challenge a few times now. Sometimes I've started, but failed. No matter. I've started again. When I've started again and gone on to succeed, it's been a great feeling. The trick always was to think not in terms of 100 days but 2, then 3 then 5, then 10 then 20 consecutive days, each day becoming a victory in itself. If I missed day, I could look back and see what I'd achieved and then look forward to having another go.

So set yourself a goal. Make it achievable then keep trying, keep failing, but keep trying.

Monday, January 11, 2016

For the love of vegetables!

When I was about 4 years old I announced that I wasn't going to eat certain meats ever again. My memory of that day is that I'd had something very chewy, possibly a bit gristly, and that put me off. I don't ever remember liking the taste or texture of a lot of meat, so I made my announcement and became known as the picky eater in the family!

50+ years on I still don't eat a lot of meat, in fact I eat even less now than I did then. But I'm not  an out and out vegetarian, at least not yet. I say not yet because I keep thinking about it, not on moral grounds, but on health grounds. The book I've been reading (The China Study) presents a lot of data that points to a vegetarian diet as being the healthiest option for addressing many of the issues that arise from a modern Western diet. The data seems to be strongly in favour of a move to a more heavily plant based diet, but then the interpretation of the data may need to be questioned. That is a job for the scientific community to do, which I'm sure they have done but I have not.

Anyway, I like vegetables (with the exception of a few including the worst of them all-the brussel sprout!), so eating mainly veg is not an issue for either Anne or myself. Working out how to make it different and tasty is a bit more of a challenge, but there are lots of options, it just take a bit of time and effort. On the hand, the same could be said of anything you cook from scratch.

The other issue with a vegetarian diet is that there are very few plant based protein sources that are complete proteins (i.e. containing all the essential amino acids). That means you have to combine plant proteins in a meal in order to get the amino acids you need. It's fairly easy to do, you just combine foods from different groups that contain the missing proteins. Or, if all you re trying to do is to cut down the amount of animal protein in your diet, then you might choose to have chicken of fish just once a week and eat vegetarian the rest of the time. That would probably ensure you get what you need in your diet although it would be wise to give that a bit more thought and research.

And cooking vegetarian need not be hard or uninteresting. We made a really nice vegetable risotto using butternut squash, sweet potato, leek and yellow pepper. Add a bit of white wine, vegetable stock and sage, sprinkle with parmesan cheese and it was very tasty!

If The China Study is right, making a shift away from animal protein could help reduce the risk of many serious conditions. The current recommendation for a balanced diet is that you eat around 15% protein, most of which comes from meat in our western diet. But if you reduced that to around 5% from animal products (which would include diary as well as meat) and the rest from plant protein, then from my reading of the book you could see some positive benefits.

If you belong to that small group of people who profess not to like vegetables the perhaps you just haven't found the right combination or maybe you haven't discovered how best to cook them for your palette. Mind you, you might say the same thing to me about meat and even sprouts!

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Healthy eating anyone?

In today’s food culture, many people seem to have acquired uncannily homogenous tastes. In 2010, two consumer scientists argued that the taste preferences of childhood provided a new way of thinking about the causes of obesity. They noted a “self-perpetuating cycle”: food companies push foods high in sugar, fat and salt, which means that children learn to like them, and so the companies invent ever more of these foods “that contribute to unhealthy eating habits”. The main influence on a child’s palate may no longer be a parent but a series of food manufacturers whose products – despite their illusion of infinite choice – deliver a monotonous flavour hit, quite unlike the more varied flavours of traditional cuisine.
So suggests an interesting article in the Guardian that appeared in my Facebook feed this morning. The article argues that our tastes are learnt. We are taught what to eat and so all the foods we consume are ones we have learnt to eat. There's no doubt that certain food types taste good to most people. There was an interesting TV programme last year that explored the relationship between fat and sugar in suppressing the feeling of being full amongst other things and how that affected the way we choose to eat. So it seems quite clear that even at a surface level our relationship with food is both simple-we eat what we like and avoid what we don't, but also more complex in the way "what we like" becomes normalised for us.

As a result, as the article points out, we may decide that we ought to be eating more fruit and vegetables, but we haven't actually learnt to enjoy eating them. It therefore becomes a chore. Maybe the same is true about freshly prepared food that takes time and effort to cook compared with the easy option of a ready meal or a visit to a fast food outlet.

Maybe the first decision we need to make then, when we decide it's time for a dietary change, is that rather than restricting what we can and can't eat, we are making a positive choice to explore new flavours, textures and foods. I bought a copy of a vegetarian food magazine before Christmas and finally got around to reading it yesterday while I sat having my lunch. I'm not a big fan of meat anyway, so vegetarian cooking has always been part of our diet, so it's not as if I was reading this out of curiosity or some sudden resolution to go vegetarian. The recipes certainly looked and sounded interesting, and we will definitely try some of them. The point is, rather than a chore or some desperate dive into a "healthy diet", exploring these recipes will be a bit of an adventure. Eating a meal without meat doesn't have to be torture and neither does eating a meal without a pudding or a glass of wine.

If the article is correct, then what you eat is your choice. As long as you understand the principles of nutrition, you're free to explore, to learn to enjoy new tastes and to experience healthy food rather than endure it. Perhaps we need to see losing weight as a by-product of choosing new eating and drinking habits rather than the sole purpose of shifting our diet away from large portions of high calorie food.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Tobias' first brush with tennis!

Tobias, aka my grandson, with his first dabble into the tennis world! Given that he's only around 16 weeks old, I had to hold it for him. That and the fact that the lights are way more interesting!

Making plans and achieving goals

Much to my surprise I discovered today that I'd actually achieved a few of the goals I set at the beginning of last year! I had a quick review of my journal and read my early January entry for 2015. It included the following goals:

  • Get back to 14st
  • Get to an 8.2 tennis rating
  • Get a clinic up and running in a gym
  • Grow the tennis side of things
Well, I hit 14st 3lbs, as far as I can remember I've won enough matches to get my 8.2 rating, I'm about to open a clinic at the gym and I passed my Level 2 coaching course and started coaching more tennis. So that's not bad.

Of course there were some things I didn't manage to achieve, and to be honest, I didn't really go out of my way to hit the targets I did make. They just sort of happened as I continued to work at those things. I guess had I been more intentional as they say, they might have happened sooner, but I'm not exactly chasing down these goals. However, it does make me think a little more about how I can stay focussed and maybe achieve a bit more this year. Improving my rating, for example, gets tougher now. Wins need to happen within a much shorter timescale to count and obviously have to come against better players. Put simply, you can only improve your rating by beating players at the same or a higher level. So it gets harder. You also have to have a positive win/loss percentage.

Fitness is also harder, mainly because I'm getting older and it doesn't get any easier! It's easier to get injured and fitness disappears faster the older you get. So maintaining a level of fitness is hard work, improving even harder. 

Work is very much a matter of word of mouth, but hopefully by opening the clinic that too will grow as will the tennis coaching. Which, by the way, is really good fun!

Business and fun are not just the only things for which I need a plan. I need some discipline in terms of CPD stuff and maintaining my knowledge base in the therapy world. I wish I had the kind of memory where stuff sticks, but I don't, so I need to get out my muscle cards and go through them all again. I'd like to do some work on nerve innervations, and I ought to get the research I did on entrapment of the Lateral Femoral Cutaneous Nerve put into some sort of order.

Add a few books to be read and some faith based goals too and there's quite a lot to be getting on with in 2016. I feel a list coming on!