Making the world a better place, one commuter at a time

Free High FiveAnyone who commutes into central London can bear testimony to the daily struggle it brings.

Packed trains, late cancellations and staff specially trained to make announcements as confusing as possible all contribute to the challenges.  My no.1 gripe is passengers who can’t be bothered to move further up into the train which means that others can’t even get on. Grrrr…

This daily grind creates a large amount of miserable individuals, keeping themselves to themselves, grimly making their way to work. Heads down, headphones in and only interacting with each other only when absolutely necessary (for more on this issue see When good people do nothing).

But yesterday I met someone doing something positive to make a difference.

‘Free High Fives’

I was standing (it had been a hard day) on the escalator going up to Victoria station. I noticed many of the people coming down the escalator the other way were smiling and laughing and slapping high-fives on a man standing a few steps further up the escalator from me.  He was holding up a sign which the people coming down towards him could read, but as he had his back to me I couldn’t see what was on it.

Whatever was on the sign it was having an impact on people. Even those who chose not to high five seemed to enjoy the fun. I travel that way every day and I have never experienced a happier escalator.

Making people smile

When we got to the top I spoke with him and he showed me what was on the sign. It turned out he was Kiwi who worked as a handyman during the day and who did stand up comedy in the evenings. I asked what his motivation was and he said:

‘It’s purely about making the commute better – nothing more’

He went onto to say more:

‘Coming to the UK and London, you can tell people are reserved and keep themselves to themselves on the tube. At first you think they are being rude but it’s really because there are no reasons to interact. So I was thinking of a simple thing that I could do and I came up with this. It makes the commute more interesting – a high-five is not really threatening is it? It doesn’t involve much commitment, but can make people smile.’

The impact of negativity

The world has plenty of apathy and negativity comes easily to most of us. It is easy to feel powerless and that we cannot do anything to improve situations – like the state of our transport system. But its important to consider the impact that sustained negativity can have on us and those around us. If we let it, moaning can become our default setting.

But yesterday, through the gloom of self-pity and the tired frustration of a long day, I experienced a bright example of someone doing something – however silly and frivolous – which made a difference. And it made me smile.

Want to know more about the Victoria Line High-Fiver, you can follow him on twitter @TJ_mcdonald

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Pushy parents and competitive dads: when children behave better than adults

competiitve dadEvery Saturday, my 10 year old son plays in a football team in a south London league. He is part of a great club, with dedicated coaches and he loves it.

It is a very competitive league but over the course of the season, I have seen hardly any aggressive behaviour, bad language or arguing with the referee from the children on the pitch.

Sadly I can’t say the same for some of the adults involved.

From among the parents watching, there is often a perpetual sense of injustice similar to the attitude of fans at a premier league match.  Any decision against the team means that the ref is rubbish or biased. Or worse. The shouting directed at the referee creates a simmering level of aggression which can boil over.

Intensity

One game this season had to be abandoned before it even started. A legitimate query over the eligibility of one of the players descended into a aggressive row which involved racist abuse. The children were all patiently waiting for the game to start as the game was called off due to the behaviour of adults.

Whilst this kind of incident is not common, what is normal is the intensity with which so many parents watch as their children play and exhort them to play better. It shows how through competitive sport children can sometimes be vicariously representing their parents own aspirations and the fulfillment of their dreams.

The most important factor we have to remember is that this kind of support does not increase the enjoyment of the children who are actually playing.

Put off by parents

Yesterday a survey was published by the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) and cricket charity Chance to Shine which spoke to over a thousand children about this very issue.

It found that children as young as eight are being put off sport by the behaviour of their parents. Of those surveyed, 45% said the bad behaviour of parents made them feel like not wanting to take part in sport. And the parents agree with them: 84% of parents of those children agreed negative behaviour discouraged youngsters from participation.

As the BBC said:

‘The survey highlights how the pressure put on by parents, whether through shouting or continually criticising, is ruining the experience of sport for too many children.’

It has made me think as I am again managing an under 12 cricket side which my boys play in and the season is just about to start.  I prefer cricket to football, and I can recall with embarrassment a few times last season when I got a bit too passionate during tense matches.

What sport can do

Team sport can do amazing things. It can bring people together – it can turn strangers into mates and bind a group like few activities can. More deeply, it teaches us things about life – about pushing ourselves, making the most of our skills, working as a team, looking out for others and achieving something as a group.

But ultimately children’s sport should be about fun – sure it can be more fun when you play well and win – but competitiveness should never be allowed to over-shadow enjoyment.

As parents, we all want our children to listen to us. As this survey shows, when it comes to our attitudes to sport, it’s time we listened to them.

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‘He was so nearly a good man': Tony Blair on Pontius Pilate

pontius-pilateTony Blair’s Christian faith is most commonly associated with a comment which was not even made by him.  His press secretary, Alastair Campbell famously said ‘We don’t do God’ because of his concerns about how easily faith and religion are misconstrued in public life.  

But, in contrast to the banal nonsense that David Cameron wrote in his recent message, Blair wrote openly and substantially about his Christian faith.

The following text is taken from his article Why I am  a Christian’ published in The Sunday Telegraph at Easter in April 1996.  It is interesting that this was written a year before the General Election and at a time when he might have most to lose from speaking openly about his beliefs:

“Easter, a time of rebirth and renewal, has a special significance for me, and, in a sense, my politics. My vision of a society reflects a faith in the human spirit and its capacity to renew itself. But Easter is not only a celebration of the Resurrection: it is also a time to recall the events that led to Christ’s crucifixion and what they mean.

There are three parts to the Easter message – best described in St Matthew. First, there is Pontius Pilate, taking his decision as Jesus stood before him. One of the things that lends power to the Gospels is that the characters are so real. Pilate is fascinating because he is so obviously human and imperfect, torn between principle and political reality. Were the Gospels simply a didactic tale, his choice would be remembered as an easy one. But it is not described in this way.”

Blair’s analysis of the political dilemma facing Pontius Pilate is fascinating to read in retrospect. Blair’s legacy, despite many positive domestic achievements, is dominated by his decision to invade Iraq in partnership with the US.  In many people’s eyes, he has been guilty of the same lack of principle that Pilate showed – and to many will be judged by history in a similar way:

“The intriguing thing about Pilate is the degree to which he tried to do the good thing rather than the bad. He commands our moral attention not because he was a bad man but because he was so nearly a good man. One can imagine him agonising, seeing that Jesus had done nothing wrong, and wishing to release him. Just as easily, however, one can envisage Pilate’s advisors telling him of the risks, warning him not to cause a riot or inflame Jewish opinion.

It is possible to see Pilate as the archetypal politician, caught on the horns of an age-old political dilemma. We know he did wrong, yet his is the struggle between what is right and what is expedient that has occurred throughout history. Should we do what appears principled or what is politically expedient?”

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David Cameron’s Easter Message: wrong on so many levels

david-cameronDavid Cameron has written an Easter message to Christians. It has been published by Premier Christianity as ‘an exclusive’ which they summarise as ‘Prime Minister David Cameron speaks up on the significance of the Christian faith.’

Danny Webster, a moderate and sensible commentator on faith in public life, is savage in his critique:

David Cameron’s Easter message is dreadful. I’m used to the charm-offensive-say-something-nice-to-Christians-at-Christmas-and-Easter type of message, but this is in a league of its own.

Cameron’s message reminds me of Tim Vine’s gag about crime in multi-storey carparks: it is wrong on so many levels.

1) It fails to even mention the central aspects of Easter

Even though this is a message to Christians, it does not even once mention Jesus, the cross or the resurrection.  Instead, Cameron gives this incredible summary of what Easter ‘is all about':

Easter is all about remembering the importance of change, responsibility, and doing the right thing for the good of our children. And today, that message matters more than ever.

Cameron, or whoever wrote this for him, is certainly not stupid. You don’t get through an Eton and Oxford education without knowing the basics of Christian doctrine.  But this shows how politically cynical a message this is – trying to remove the core of the Easter story and replacing it with feel-good fudge.

2) It substitutes faith with ‘moral claptrap’

As he has done before, Cameron makes a big play of how appreciative he is of what the Christian faith can do, that he is “an unapologetic supporter of the role of faith in this country”.  But this clearly reads like a belief in faith itself, a belief in cultural Christianity – which essentially boils down to a sort of home counties, middle-class decency.

This is exactly the kind of twisting of authentic faith that Christians should reject. It is a great example of what the Archbishop Justin Welby described as ‘moral claptrap’ which can so easily and insidiously replace the gospel of grace at the heart of the Christian message.

3) It shows his fondness for charity more than social justice

Cameron makes himself out to be a great defender of Christian voluntary activism:

Across the country, we have tens of thousands of fantastic faith-based charities…As Prime Minister, I’ve worked hard to stand up for these charities and give them more power and support. If my party continues in government, it’s our ambition to do even more.

But does this ring true to how dismissive and aggressive the Tories have been towards the Trussell Trust who coordinate the Food Banks?

In any case, we should always be suspicious of the rich and powerful’s fondness for charitable activity.  The Church’s acts of compassion should never be separated from our demands for justice.

The true power of the Easter story

This is the most important few days of the year for committed Christians.  It is not a celebration which is about chocolate, rabbits or daffodils.

It is about a man who lived, died and was resurrected. It’s story which we believe to be true – in both the sense that ‘it happened’ and because it contains truth which speaks to people across cultures and generations.  It’s a story of friendship, betrayal, political reality, sacrifice, cowardice and forgiveness. It is the most powerful story of renewal and hope that has ever been told.

This the revolutionary faith that turned the ancient world upside down and which is making a difference today.  This the faith that people are still dying for in many countries. This is the faith which is inspiring 6 people where I live to be baptised at our church on Easter Sunday.  

This is a long way from the banalities and superficiality of Cameron’s Easter message. This is the celebration of the resurrection of the Son of God. He is Risen – and a vast explosion of love, joy and hope have been released into the world. Nothing can ever be the same again.

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‘It’s All About Me': spiritual music to nourish the soul

I am really excited by this album of Christian worship songs that I have just discovered – check out this promotional video.

It helps me focus on what is truly important – I would recommend it for anyone, but especially bloggers. Surely nothing could be a better in the week approaching Easter…

Note: for those reading this afterwards, please bear in mind the date of this post….

Posted in Films & music | 3 Comments

‘All of humanity’s problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room alone’

Blaise PascalBlaise Pascal (1623- 1662) was a French philosopher, mathematician, inventor and Christian writer.

He wrote about faith in a highly skeptical time, just after the Thirty Years War where Europe had descended into brutality and chaos as Christians killed each other over doctrinal differences.

Despite this disastrous religious violence, Pascal argued that the Christian faith was true because it offered the best understanding of human nature: why we are the way we are and what we can do to remedy our condition. Among many great things he wrote, this is perhaps one of the most famous:

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

The journey inward

Much of the content on R&R is about activism – about what we can do to make a difference in the world. But I increasingly believe that this emphasis on outward actions needs to be complemented by attending to our own inward journey.  Authentic spirituality deepens our journey in both directions.

Whatever they believe, everyone should take regular time and space for the journey inward.  As Henri Nouwen wrote:

‘Solitude is the furnace of transformation. Without solitude we remain victims of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of the false self.’

We need to sit quietly in a room alone. Busyness is indeed the enemy of spirituality.

We all need the discipline of paying attention to what is happening within ourselves – to examine our soul, who we really are. This is not about navel-gazing or self-indulgent analysis.  It is about gathering resources in order to live authentically.

In the silence, what do you hear? What are you reminded of? What thoughts flood in? Do you have the courage to listen to what you hear?

Contemplation and activism

Mother TeresaLast week, I was read for the first time a mantra that Mother Teresa used to often repeat. It is beautifully distilled, spiritual wisdom about the relationship between contemplation and activism:

The fruit of silence is prayer.

The fruit of prayer is faith.

The fruit of faith is love.

The fruit of love is service.

The fruit of service is peace.

Unity and integrity

These words sum up the way that the journey inward through silence and prayer lead us to faith:

Silence – Prayer – Faith 

And in turn, faith sends us outward to live a life of love and service to others:

Faith – Love – Service

It is in the unity and integrity of these inward and outward journeys that we will find peace. Both for ourselves and for the hurting world around us.

Related: Busyness: the enemy of Spirituality’

Posted in Ethics & Christian living | Tagged , | 3 Comments

‘I fully sympathise with Stephen Fry’ – by Alan Jonas

Stephen Fry and Gay ByrneIn early February, Stephen Fry was in the news, and all over the internet, for declaring if there was a God, he would be “utterly, utterly evil.”

Fry was reacting to a question from Irish TV presenter, Gay Byrne: “What would you say if you came face-to-face with God?”

Stephen Fry demanded:

“Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?”

I fully sympathise with Mr Fry.

All of us must question what it means to have faith in a world of suffering.  If, however, that questioning leads people to conclude, like Stephen Fry, that there is no God, they make a huge leap of faith.

Atheists, such as Stephen Fry, can only believe that we are random, meaningless accidents in an infinity of space. This means that there is no ultimate point or purpose to our lives, nothing intrinsically valuable in our existence. That there is no basis beyond humanity for where love and beauty come from.

‘The mystery of evil’

And yet, most of us would say from instinct, from truth deep within ourselves, that this cannot be true.  Rather than the lost plaintive cries of Stephen Fry, hear the beautiful gentle words of the monk and writer, Timothy Radcliffe:

“The mystery of evil has no explanation, but it is swallowed up in the more profound mystery of good.”

Even in a world of appalling suffering, most of us live by this profound mystery; the victory of good; that there is point and meaning to our lives; we are not random, meaningless accidents; there is purpose which has at its core love and beauty…there is God.

Of course, once we acknowledge this creative force in the universe that is God, it must be incumbent on us to find out who He is, what He is like.  The Christian faith gives us answers to these questions.  Jesus says “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:7). As we know Jesus, we know God.

Facing injustice and pain

We find that God, of course, does not magic away all of the world’s problems.  Instead, He faces the world of injustice and pain that Stephen Fry decries.  He loves and serves, and overcomes the power of the essential ills of our existence – the sin of mankind, death and the force of evil.

Then we are invited by God to join the battle.  Following His example and in His power and victory, we are not to be by-standers decrying a world of injustice and pain, but instead we are to be engaged in bringing His kingdom, until all of the “mystery of evil” is completely “swallowed up in the more profound mystery of good”.

Everyone has faith – something we believe in, base our lives on.  I believe not in random meaningless but in good, in God, and in the example and victory of Jesus Christ.

Rev. Alan Jonas, Vicar of Holy Trinity Church, Westcott and Rural Dean of
Dorking

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Personal and political: a basis for a more radical theology

1) The relationship between people and society

personal and social 1

This diagram shows the basic relationship at the core of all sociology: between people and the society in which they live.

Each person is an individual who lives within a social environment. This is the way God created life to be, we are social beings made for community.

The nature of this relationship between people and society is at the core of political debate. The left tends to emphasise social responsibility and the right personal responsibility. Karl Marx believed that the economic social conditions into which people are born completely determine their life chances.  In contrast, Margaret Thatcher declared ‘There is no such thing as society’ because she wanted to emphasise personal responsibility.

2) The radical impact of selfishness

personal and social 2However, we live in a world where this relationship between people and society is so often oppressive. It is fractured by individual selfishness and acts of corporate self-interest.

We see it everyday, from individual acts of aggression and abuse, to the corporations who continually flout the laws and rip people off. Selfishness is embedded and compounded in unjust social conditions where rampant inequality creates poverty and vulnerability.

Our whole social order – the economic, political and religious, has been warped by these self-regarding tendencies. There is a ‘crack in everything’ which the Bible calls sin. It expresses itself in both idolatry (failure to love God) and injustice (failure to love our neighbour) and is manifested in both in individual choices and in the corporate and structures. Rather than being a way of judging others, sin is the best way of explaining the mess that the world is in.

3) The radical impact of the good news of Jesus Christ

personal and social 3

The gospel of Jesus is good news which changes both people and systems. It speaks to our deepest personal needs because it is a message of affirmation, forgiveness and liberation.  But it is no individualistic ‘escape ticket to heaven’.  It is news which Jesus defined as bringing ‘good news to the poor, freedom to the prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind and a release to the oppressed’.

Inward change leads to outward action. A transformed individual seeks to transform the world around them through their actions. This is the essence of a radical gospel: rooted in personal commitment and expressed in social and political witness. A faith which can speak to both to our deepest personal needs and provide a vision of a transformed society.

This diagram was adapted from one in Bryant Myer’s brilliant book ‘Walking with the Poor

Posted in Politics, Theology & Church | 7 Comments

Dealing with discouragements as a parent – by Olive Kuhrt

Olive KuhrtChildren can bring us a lot of happiness, but as I have reflected on how I was brought up, how I brought up my children and as I see my ten grand-children being brought up, I think the whole process is tougher than ever.  Parents can face a lot of discouragement.

We should not minimize the particular challenges that some parents face but I want to highlight three general things which can cause discouragement:

1) Having too great expectations

Everyone has times of discouragement and mothers are particularly prone to feeling down. The TV series Call the Midwife has reminded us so often of the joy of holding a newborn baby in your arms.  At that moment every mother’s ambition is to be the perfect parent. None want to make the same mistakes that their parents made with them!

It is a temptation to think that if only it can be done right, then children will grow up well-balanced and always completely fulfilled and happy.  Of course, it is good to have high expectations and ideals but we should be realistic and recognise that we shall all sometimes fail and get things wrong.

2) Wanting to keep up the appearance of success

We all want our children to achieve their potential but this generation is probably the most driven and pressurized to succeed than ever. Some parents cannot bear for their children not to excel at everything. And if they don’t, quite likely many parents blame themselves for not doing enough to support them.

It can be very discouraging if we are not able to trust anyone about our worries.  I remember very clearly my mother pouring out her heart to a friend about a disappointment she was facing concerning one of my sisters, only to discover later that the friend had exactly the same situation with her son but never admitted it. We can so fear criticism that we keep things bottled up maintaining that everything is fine.

3) Tiredness

Life is very very busy these days. Mothers often have to be Supermums.  Often both parents have to work long hours in their jobs and they feel they have to constantly entertain their children or take them to be entertained. Then, in spite of more labour-saving devices than ever, they have to cope with normal household chores. Then add to the mix the demands of their own parents, it is no wonder that they are worn out.

Fatigue causes discouragement which leads to frustration when jobs can’t get done. When exhausted it is very hard to be patient and that in turn leads to guilt and a sense of failure.

So, it is easy to feel discouraged as a parent. Where can we find encouragement?

The story of Jochebed

There are certainly lots of stories about Mothers in the Bible. But often they go unnoticed, in spite of their crucial role, because it’s their famous sons that the writers are mostly interested in. For example, have you heard of Jochebed?

Jochebed was Hebrew, an ethnic minority living in Egypt at a time where everyday was a nightmare for all mothers, fathers and family members alike.  The Pharoah had ordered that every new Hebrew male child born should be tossed into the River Nile and drowned. Jochebed had just had a baby boy – if anyone had a right to feel desperate she did!

Through some incredible events (see Exodus 1 & 2), Jochebed’s baby survived through being adopted by a Princess. The child would grow up to become Moses, one of Israel’s greatest leaders who led his people out of slavery and oppression. Jochebed illustrates the vital role that mothers have.  She knew that her time was limited before she would have to give her son completely to someone else and what she taught Moses in those early years stayed with him forever.

Instilling the right values 

I’d like to ask the mothers today – what would you teach your child if you were in that position?  What values would you instill?

When you are feeling discouraged and anxious about your children remember the Christian framework we have in the Bible to guide us. As followers of Jesus we have extra resources, especially as part of his Church.  God helps us to know what is right and gives us his strength and wisdom to carry it through.

So don’t compare yourself to what others are doing, or their children’s achievements. Don’t have the wrong ideas about what constitutes success. That way means discouragement. Remember Jochebed who committed her son to God in great faith and knew that the most important thing she could do for him was not to bestow material blessings but a living relationship with Almighty God.

This is an edited version of a sermon preached on Mother’s Day by Olive Kuhrt at Christ Church, New Malden on 15th March 2015.  Listen to the whole talk.

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How do you solve a problem like Jeremy Clarkson? A positive proposal to the BBC – by Jonathan Chilvers

Jeremy-ClarksonDear Tony Hall, Director General of the BBC,

So next week you have got to decide what you’re going to do about Jeremy Clarkson.

On the one hand, you want him to continue heading up one of the BBC’s most successful shows which is loved (and hated) the world over and raking in millions of pounds each year.

On the other he’s (allegedly) assaulted and abused Top Gear producer Oisin Tymon, after already being given a final warning for his behaviour.

So what action could you take that would treat the incident with the seriousness it deserves, but still keep open the possibility of Jeremy keeping his job at Top Gear? I think some of the principles of Restorative Justice may help you out.

Restorative justice

Restorative Justice, as the name suggests is an attempt to restore the relationship between a victim and offender after a crime has occurred. It is always voluntary on the part of both parties. In a safe space it gives the victim the opportunity to explain the impact that the crime has had on them and their family.

It gives the chance for the offender to repair the harm done and start to make amends. Crucially, the balance of power, which normally lays with the offender is reset as the victim gets a voice as an equal and shapes the decisions made.

Power and perception

So Oisin Tymon could sit down with Jeremy Clarkson and talk it through – but two critical problems need dealing with.

Firstly, there’s a massive power imbalance. Mr. Tymon is a lowly ranking producer serving food whose name no-one will remember in 6 months. Jeremy Clarkson is internationally famous, influential and in media terms, very powerful.

Secondly there’s the world-wide perception problem. When a role model hits someone (allegedly) because there’s no steak, after lots of previous warnings, the public need to feel it’s been properly dealt with.

My suggestion

So, my suggestion is that Jeremy Clarkson should be put in Oisin Tymon’s shoes. He should be responsible for sorting out all the food and carrying and fetching and organising for a different TV show. Not just for a half hour gimmick and a press call, but for a whole, gruelling series.We’d want to be fair so we’d pay Mr. Clarkson at the going rate for the work he carries out, but treat him exactly the same as everyone else.

At the end of that time, then he could sit down with Oisin Tymon, apologise properly and start restoring what has been broken. But then it would not be just about the two of them. They would be representing the relationship between all big money celebrities and the men and women who labour unseen and unheard on a fraction of the income to make programmes happen. Between those who have power and those who don’t.

Stark choice

I know they’ll be challenges and a media circus, but these are not insurmountable problems.  And, this would need to be a choice for both men. Oisin Tymon would need to decide what his response would be and it would present a stark choice for Jeremy Clarkson: Either you go down this route before it’s time to film the next series or you walk away and you never do Top Gear again.

I don’t know he would choose. But despite his expletive-ridden tirade at the BBC recently, I have a suspicion that Jeremy Clarkson loves Top Gear and might walk quite a few miles, and serve quite a few dinners, if this could save it.

Why not give it some thought Mr. Hall. What have you got to lose?

Yours, Jonathan Chilvers, Top Gear fan.

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