Groupthink. Herdthink. Nothink.

Sheep somewhere in England. My photo)

I’ve been thinking, which sometimes can be dangerous.

Why do we and our opinions need to be ‘acceptable’?

Who decides what is acceptable? You? Me?

What if my acceptable isn’t your acceptable? Does that make you unacceptable, or me unacceptable?

Clearly some opinions are unacceptable. At least the weight of social media tells us so.

Is this a good thing?

Is it a necessary thing?

Why are we afraid of straying from the herd, in our opinions? Is it because it requires some courage to stand up to group pressure? Why are there costs to thinking differently? Who benefits? Do you? Do I?

Are you amazed how quickly some opinions are pounced on with the zeal and righteousness of a temperance crusader of an earlier time? How quickly the holder of such opinions loses their humanity and has all manner of evil motives attributed? How eagerly we line up to denounce their vileness, rend our garments, and establish our credentials as herd members.

Why do we demonise those with opinions different from ours? Do we feel threatened, or is it that our individuality is the price of a comfortable place in the herd?

This is not a new thing. Humans have done it forever. Without trying very hard I can list a few examples:

• Propaganda and demonisation of the ‘other’ in all wars everywhere and in all times;

• Denunciations of witches in the middle ages;

• Purges in Stalinist Russia;

• Deportation and murder of Jews in Europe;

• Denunciations of communist sympathisers in 1950s USA;

and more recently:

• Demonisation of refugees (everywhere);

• Ostracising of climate change ‘deniers’;

• Smears against Christian, Muslim and other religious believers;

• Demonisation of supporters of left wing, right wing, nationalist, environment or a host of other causes;

• Deplatforming holders of views deemed to be offensive;

• Accusations of racism, sexism, elitism, fascism against just about anybody who doesn’t quickly embrace the spirit of the times;

and so on, and so on.

Do you think there might be a better way to do business?

Life is short. It is precious. Why would we choose to spend it treating each other as if we are pieces of nonsentient slime?

Might there be a better way for you and for me?

Might it be . . . hold the thought . . . that we might lead more balanced, fulfilled lives by accepting outsiders? Might it be that the often vicious demonisation and dehumanisation of others we indulge in on social media and in the way we regard those who are different is what is really killing us all?

Radical idea. I know.

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Two Poems

(Stream in Glen Coe, Scotland. My photograph)

Lost Opportunity

You tumbled into being

as you began to walk your life.

I walked sleeping, unaware,

as I became a father twice.

The boy/man, pretending.

His grief not understood,

tried to paper over

stuff his father never could.

How badly I was drifting,

when I left you, thinking

you wouldn’t miss me.

Surprising stupidity.

Persuaded you were resilient,

I minimised and rationalised

my selfishness,

until I looked, and you were far away.

I would hug the child

in the photo in front of me.

But you’re not three now,

and never again will be.

(A valley in Glen Coe Scotland. My photograph)

Dysfunction Named

A problem unspoken

remains unbroken.

What mustn’t be uttered

tiptoes and flutters

behind closed shutters

Rules are changed,

deflecting blame.

Conspire together

waiting for someone else to name

the obscenity behind the game.

Collectively mindless,

and with selective blindness,

Sacrificing truth for a quiet life;

all hoping someone else

will step up and name it.

Wondering why,

they limp to paralysis,

papering veneer

and hiding the substance

behind euphemism and lie.

The truth though hard

must be uncovered,

owned and faced.

Elephants leave little space

when they occupy a room.

Freedom and Trust

It is likely there was a time for all of us, when we approached life as a small child does.

Excitement, joy, freedom, trust. They’re still there for me, but I have moved on from when I was a two year old. I no longer do cartwheels on a beach for the sheer joy of it.

Looking at this photo of one of my grandsons I began to wonder at the changes that happen to us while we live. I’m not talking about physical ageing so much as how our inner self is morphed by experience. Some call it the gaining of wisdom. I’m not so sure.

Freedom; that’s an interesting concept. It’s not always what we think it is when we are just starting out. If we see it simply as the absence of restrictions we’ve got the wrong end of the stick. We’re operating as a child or adolescent would do. This ‘freedom’ is dependent on the indulgence and sacrifice of parents and other adults. When an adult understands freedom as the absence of restrictions, pain and tears are never far away.

We may recoil from this type of ‘freedom’, and organise our lives around routine, enclosing them with habit; constructing comfortable cages for ourselves. Might I suggest this is a mistake?

Depending on how we look at it, we’re as free as we choose to be. As long as we are prepared for the consequences, we can choose to do just about anything. So many of us, I think, construct our own cages; paint and wallpaper them; renovate and add to them over the years, all the while telling ourselves we have fewer choices than we actually do. I’m not necessarily talking about houses or apartments here. It could be our superannuation, our reputation, needless anxieties about security, or listening to people around us who communicate their expectations of us in all sorts of ways. Older people, for example, are expected to be stable, predictable and stay out of the way.

When we step outside of the expectations others place on us, there are always consequences, but often they are not as drastic as we might think. Take my experience of the prison of expectations. Gentlemen over sixty should do certain things and not others. They do not, apparently, begin guitar lessons. That is something children and young adults do. The music teaching industry is not designed for older people to enter as students. You find yourself gently patronised. What you don’t find, unless you are lucky, is a teacher who recognises your passion and understands your need to play the best you can. They may welcome you as a source of extra income, but secretly scratch their head wondering why you are bothering at your age.

Neither do older gentlemen volunteer as a receptionist at a hospice. The first two years were the worst, until staff members finally got used to seeing an old guy sitting at the reception desk.

Neither do they learn a second language or write a blog. Thankfully the consequences for doing these things are usually no more than that family and friends remain a little off balance and wonder what you will get up to next. By now, I think, most have given up expecting me to grow out of it.

There is much more freedom in life than we are prepared to risk. The cages of our own and others’ expectations are flimsier than we might think. Now that is wisdom. You can take it or leave it.

Which leaves us with trust.

A two year old trusts instinctively and in most cases, that trust is honoured. Sooner of later though, trust becomes an issue for us. Some of us learn to trust nobody and nothing. Others continue to trust people and things long after that trust is abused.

When our trust is betrayed, the inner damage is profound. It is one of life’s worst experiences, especially when we had invested ourselves deeply in somebody or something. How many of us have not felt the pain of betrayal? Along the way, how many of us have not betrayed someone else’s trust? Speaking for myself, the consequences in either case can last a life time.

We learn, through experience, that trust is built up over time and can be destroyed in a second.

So trusting too widely is foolish, but trusting too little is sad. To trust is to allow ourselves to be as vulnerable as a little child. A person who cannot allow themselves to be vulnerable cannot know trust.

There are great risks we all must take, I think. Without risk, life loses excitement, joy, freedom and trust. We don’t need to do cartwheels on a beach to experience these things, although if I were a two year old I would. I get my excitement, joy and freedom these days with stepping outside the cages of expectation and taking a few risks here and there.

Trust, on the other hand, can be a little trickier and riskier. Worth it though. It is the greatest gift, apart from love, you can give anyone.

When we allow ourselves to experience freedom and trust, excitement and joy are the bonus.

My Wooden Heart

Time for a change of blog topics, if only a temporary one.

I’ve been turning wood on a lathe for just six months but already I’ve discovered a love of shaping and working with wood. It was always latent within me, but now it has free reign. I’m beginning feel comfortable with the tools and not to be terrified of working with fine tolerances on rapidly spinning pieces of wood. It’s not so much great fun, although I enjoy it. It’s more the deep sense of satisfaction that comes with the creation of something unique.

Three of my favourites so far: A lidded box and two incense holders.

You can approach woodturning with the mind and attitude of a technician, or, like me, you can be a little more free and easy with dimensions and shapes. You can also explain flaws and irregularities as planned artistic features. Some people may even believe you.

It’s not all success. Sometimes you can go too far, like with this monstrosity that I had planned to be an unusual bowl, but the wood was so hard I gave up trying to gouge out a cavity. I’m not sure what it is now. An ‘objet’ of sorts perhaps?

Some more lidded boxes, all with flaws thrown in.

Three shallow bowls (largest is 30 cm diameter) that I’m not allowed to call platters because they do not have the exact relative dimensions a platter should have (according to the rules of my woodturning club). As you may have guessed, I’m not a rules kind of guy.

The two on the right are Silky Oak. I have a soft spot for the ugly duckling on the left fashioned from Dogwood. The large fissure across it and the flaw in its rim give it a sort of beauty the other two can’t aspire to, but maybe that’s just me.

The only downside so far is that it is very difficult to sell anything you make on a lathe for anything approaching what it costs you to make. Consequently I prefer to give the bowls, boxes and insence holders away to friends and relatives. Win win I guess?

Looking for Love in all the Non Places

(My photo: A ‘non place’ in Barcelona)

Poetry, photography and travel posts have been a bit thin on the ground recently. I’ll get back to them soon, but I have an itch to scratch here first.

I’ve written again on the theme of meaning in a world that distracts attention from it. In particular, I’m interested in the idea of ‘non places’ mentioned a book by Mark Sayers.

“Strange Days: Life in the Spirit in a Time of Upheaval”. Mark Sayers (Kindle ebook).

We’re getting it so wrong it seems. We are looking for love (a.k.a. meaning and belonging) in the wrong places, which actually are ‘non places’.

‘Places’ are where we are involved with others, feel part of the whole and experience community. These could be homes, sports clubs, churches, worksheds, community drop in centres, family reunions, a street party, the clean up after a natural disaster, maybe schools and maybe workplaces (depending on how humane and humanizing they are).

‘Non places’, conversely, are where we are self contained, just passing through, without meaningful interpersonal contact. Examples are shopping malls, CBDs, airport terminals, coffee shops and bars; anywhere anonymous, sterile, faux neighbourly, but empty of any genuine care. And while we’re on the topic: would that include anywhere and everywhere we sit glued to social media?

‘Places’ nurture us and augment our humanity. ‘Non places’ alienate us and stunt it. It’s not really about the actual place is it? It’s what happens there and how we respond. Get the idea? Maybe we should be talking of ‘dehumanizing contexts’ rather than ‘non places’?

Non places offer illusions of freedom, choice and absence of responsibility. We can, and do, use them as an escape where we soar free from everyday reality. Offering freedom, they deliver instead disengagement and passivity. Enticing us to indulge the self, they close us off from others and, in the process, make us less human.

Wandering through a shopping mall (some people enjoy this, I’ve been told) we can dream of purchases that will make us whole. Skipping around the internet we have infinite choice and minimal engagement. Sitting alone in a cafe, people watching, we bathe in our own invisibility while passers by may as well be holograms. What we do not experience generally, is anything much that nourishes the soul, or reinforces who we are, or binds us more closely to our fellow human beings.

Non places are ‘self’ places. The problem is, turning in on ourselves, we become less able to notice others.

Why does it matter? Why should we care about this? Well, it’s kind of relevant if we are interested in becoming fully human.

Are we looking for love (meaning and belonging) in all the wrong places? Are we looking inwards to ourselves to find what can only be found in positive relationships with others?

Who would have thought?

Non places are everywhere and anywhere. One person’s place can easily be another’s non place. It depends on how a person experiences and responds to his or her surrounds there. Perhaps wherever you are, if you are in a cocoon, without emotional connection to passers by, it’s likely a non place for you.

The whole of Sydney was, for me recently, a non place when I had two days to kill while my wife attended a conference there. Lovely scenery and lots to do, granted. However as I walked around, I felt removed and alone. I forget who said it: “One is never as alone as when one is alone in a crowd”. Of course that could have changed in an instant for me for a whole host of reasons. A medical emergency or a lost child would have dissolved the membrane and had me dealing personally and humanely with some who shared the space. Instead, they remained alien souls floating past in a video collage.

I was so happy each afternoon to get back to the hotel (another non place) when my wife had finished her conference session. We would go out for dinner to what could have easily have been yet another non place, except that we enjoyed it together.

Might I deduce that being fully human is all about relationships rather than the self? I’ll qualify that. Relationships that nurture and affirm our humanity. There are far too many of the other sort.

Maybe what Sayers has said about ‘non places’ could apply to ‘non relationships’?

Could it be that our relationships are the key to our becoming fully human?

Maybe I should change the title to “Looking for Love in all the wrong relationships”?

That’s a thought.

The Collapse of Meaning

How our Western culture short changes us as human beings.

It’s a difficult ask to condense the huge volume of material written on this topic, and do justice to its breadth and depth. Certainly impossible in a thousand words or less. In these circumstances all that is possible is a conversation starter, which is what this post is intended to be. Whether that conversation is with me, or in the reader’s own mind, is not important.

I’ve drawn on a book by Mark Sayers: “Disappearing Church” (Kindle). It’s an interesting and thought provoking read, but I’ve just picked up a few ideas and expanded on them. The book itself covers far more ideas than are discussed here. I recommend it to you.

Quotes are from the book are indicated in the usual way. Page numbers are not given due to the digital format of the book.

(Gold Coast Australia. My photo. An icon of secular consumerism)

Sayers’ book observes and critiques the culture that enfolds and forms us in the west. That culture considers itself sophisticated and highly evolved; superior in most ways from cultures that preceded it, and those that continue to flourish in non western societies. It is a culture full of contradictions: Fiercely secular, yet soaked in early religious traditions of gnosticism, animism and paganism; Indifferent or hostile to traditional Christianity, yet celebrating diversity of other traditional world religions; Devoted to the power of the individual, yet gathering itself into tribes where conformity of opinion is demanded; and desperately searching for transcendence and enlightenment, yet generating alienation and despair at the purposelessness of life lived according to its values.

Sayers delves deeply into the controlling beliefs driving our western secular culture, and pinpoints where the innate contradictions of our lives reveal themselves. These beliefs, principles, doctrines are regarded within the culture as self evident and beyond challenge. Those bold enough to challenge them can expected to be silenced and ostracised by the weight of social pressure, and/or legal sanctions.

The controlling beliefs of our western zeitgeist are seductive, powerful and ultimately deceptive. They promise happiness but bring us emptiness; preach self actualization but dehumanise us; offer freedom, but enslave us.

“So distracted by the phony war between left and right, conservatives and liberals, we have failed to notice that a new power had seized control of both our imaginations and the halls of power.

This new power swirls around a small yet widely held set of beliefs**:

1. The highest good is individual freedom, happiness, and self-expression.

2. Traditions, religions, received wisdom, regulations, and social ties that restrict individual freedom and self expression must be reshaped, deconstructed, or destroyed.

3. The world will inevitably improve as the scope of individual freedom grows. Technology—in particular the Internet—will motor this progression toward utopia.

4. The primary social ethic is tolerance of everyone’s self-defined quest for individual freedom and self-expression. Any deviation from this ethic of tolerance is dangerous and must not be tolerated.

5. Humans are inherently good.

6. Large-scale structures and institutions are suspicious at best and evil at worst.

7. Forms of external authority are rejected and personal authenticity is lauded.

So, recognize any of them? Maybe you can add more. Maybe also, you don’t fully endorse each and every one of them and would like to qualify here and there. Fair enough. I’m not here to defend the list, but to claim that, like it or not, be aware of it or not, our culture does shape us. It corrals us into certain ways of thinking, it limits our dreams, and in some ways diminishes our human potential. I don’t have the space (or perhaps the ability) to present a knock down argument for what I just wrote.

I think that its possible to live in the midst of a culture like ours, and be unaware of the beliefs that drive it.

How often have you heard or seen written, “Be true to yourself” or “It’s all about You”, or “You’re worth it”? The words change, but the principle behind it is a powerful one in our culture, shaping millions of lives every day. Of course, it’s not necessarily all bad to believe and follow that principle, but as an overarching principle for life it seems more than a little deceptive and shaky to me. What does it tell us is important about our relations with, and responsibilities toward, others?

The worship of tolerance is another phenomenon in our culture, except that we’re not really tolerant at all, are we? Well, as long as people share our beliefs, which, if they happen to be the socially responsible, earth friendly, diversity celebrating beliefs embraced by the elite, then all is rosy. Except I have never been able to understand how elevating tolerance above all else can not lead to anything but a clear example of intolerance.

If individual freedom and self expression are the highest good, and the self is the reference point for what is good, then what does that say about who we are as human beings? Are we then our own gods? The problem arises, and it always does, when the god in me and the god in you disagree on what “good” means.

We are encouraged in a host of ways, subtle and overt, to see ourselves as sophisticated and enlightened when we reject the notion of a transcendent creator God. If we continue to believe in such ‘fairy tales’, as the message goes, we ought to have the decency to keep that belief to ourselves. Our secular cousins can have free range for their beliefs, but ours are to remain hidden and private. Seems fair, or does it?

If there were any evidence at all that the rise in the number of people who reject faith in God is accompanied by a rise in general happiness, mental health and peaceful coexistence in society I would stop and take a good look at it. Alas the opposite is true. As we throw our faith away in the west and install ourselves as gods, we enjoy all the meaninglessness and ultimate hopelessness that attends that. Our lives are pointless, apart from the goals we set ourselves: wealth, power, self actualization and so on and so on. None of these things brings a sense of meaning, of connection, of being fully human.

“This is a culture in which we (are encouraged to*) believe that ultimately, life is meaningless, but we are insulated from the full horror of such a belief by the distracting and anesthetizing qualities of our public culture. Our existential angst is drowned out by cooking shows, discount airfares, smartphones, and celebrity gossip.” (Sayers quote)

“Without God, humans attempt to create a beautiful world, filled with fine foods, craftsmanship, fulfilling work, elegant forms, and creativity. Yet this beautiful world becomes a prison as humans are possessed by the things that they create. We are unable to understand or even see the world correctly as a gift from God, to be enjoyed, but not owned.” (Sayers quote)

Our western culture is leading us (or are we leading ourselves) into a place we do not want to be. I believe we were not made to be gods. We were not meant to live stunted alienated, meaningless lives. We were made to be fully human. That is one thing that many of us in the west today can not be sure we are any more.

* My insertion.

** I have edited some of the principles from the book, mostly to simplify them.

Transformative People

(Fresco on the wall of an Armenian Church taken by me in 2015. Bullet holes courtesy of occupying Soviet soldiers)

I don’t know how many people, like me, want to make a difference, to work for good, but find themselves thwarted again and again by stuff. More than a few I suspect.

In my case, the obstacles along the way seem to multiply the harder I try to overcome them. Sometimes its a bit like walking through quicksand. The temptation to give up and climb onto the easier path is a strong one. Fighting injustice, caring for the poor, loving my neighbour and all that sort of thing is all very well and good. It’s just that it’s hard to keep going when the odds seem stacked against you.

Yes, I am feeling a little discouraged, but these things ebb and flow. It’s not all those people out there who don’t share my beliefs who get to me. What discourages me and presses my buttons most are the attitudes of some of my fellow ‘Christians’. I have met some of the most inspiring people in Christian circles, but unfortunately, the opposite is also true.

Some congregations are more like social clubs than anything else. The most animated part of the church experience for them is the coffee and chat afterwards; enthusiasm and engagement rarely rising above the comatose while they sit through the worship. The big interest items in these congregations are social functions, usually fund raisers, and the congregational meetings, at which weighty matters like budgets are discussed. Sitting through experiences like these I amuse myself by imagining one of the early Christian apostles wandering in and being confused by what they see. Seat warmers, hymn singers, response mutterers, but no evidence of people being nourished and equipped to go out into the world and make a difference.

Congregations like this, and there are many of them, are dying, and they deserve to. They have forgotten, if they ever knew, what their purpose is. Making strategic plans that are never followed? Getting the balance of music right? Or being Christ’s followers sent into the world to bring hope, love and acceptance where there is little of any of these?

Anglican theologian, N. T. Wright, is more sanguine than I am when he writes: “No matter what your worldview, your beliefs, or your culture, you will find Jesus haunting, disturbing, and attractive”. Well, you wouldn’t come across such a Jesus at some of the congregations I know.

The great majority of people don’t find Jesus ‘haunting, disturbing and attractive’ because that is nothing like the Jesus they have been introduced to. By and large, if they think of Jesus at all, they envision a caricature easily dismissed for the nonsense it is. It is a great pity that many people have rejected a Jesus who never existed, and has no relationship to the Jesus of the Bible, when the real deal is indeed haunting, disturbing and attractive.

So what of the great mass of people today who wouldn’t walk into a church ever, if they could avoid it? I sometimes find it easy to agree with them.

Wright continues:

“THE WORD God is a heavy, clunky little syllable. It drops like a lead weight into otherwise cheerful conversations.

the popular image of God as a bully in the sky who makes odd demands and becomes dangerously petulant if people ignore him.”

Wright congratulates people who have rejected such a God:

“They are right. That God—the dull, distant, and dangerous one—does not exist.

Is that old bearded figure, waiting on a cloud to receive the recently dead, even remotely like the God of the Bible?” The answer of course, is no.”

Not surprisingly, very many people reject such a misconstrued God. He is filed away, with other childhood tales. Many peoples’ understanding of God is based on childish misconceptions which have never been replaced by grown-up ones. They have never been replaced by grown-up ones because church goers have become comfortable sitting in their Christian ghettos, while the world goes its own way. They have forgotten who they are. No risk taking, imprisonment or crucifixions for them. Ignoring their local community, they hold endless discussions about ‘mission’, always done by someone else, somewhere else.

There ends the rant. If you are still with me, it’s not all bad. There is hope.

Two more Wright quotes follow that contain a vision for what can and should be. I will read them again. Afterwards I will remember who I am, and what I need to be working towards. No time then for discouragement or disillusionment.

“We know what the power of the world looks like. When push comes to shove, as it often does, it is the power of violence, using the threat of pain and death. It is, yes, the power of tanks and bombs, and also of guns and knives and whips and prisons and barbed wire and bulldozers. Weapons to destroy people’s lives; machines to destroy their homes. Cruelty in the home or at work. Malice and manipulation where there should be gentleness, kindness, and wisdom. Jesus’s power is of a totally different sort, as he explained to the Roman governor a few minutes before the governor sent him to his death—thereby proving the point. The kingdoms of the world run on violence. The kingdom of God, Jesus declared, runs on love. That is the good news.”

“the power behind the cosmos is not blind chance, nor yet brute force, but love. It is a delighted love that celebrates the goodness and specialness of every part of creation and of the extraordinary, brilliant, pulsating entirety of it. A love that cares for and cares about the smallest creature and the farthest star. A love that made one creature in particular, humans, to share uniquely in the capacity to receive and to give love, and so to share uniquely in the vocation to work with the grain of the Creator’s intention, to bring his work to its wonderful intended fulfillment. There are many things in the world as it now is that conspire to make us forget this great truth. The good news of Jesus is there not only to remind us of it but to transform us with it so that we in turn may become transformative people.”

Things my Music Teacher told me

Things my music teacher told me . . .

again and again.

(Things I’ve taken an awfully long time to learn and still haven’t internalised fully. The joys of learning to play music when you retire! You can see how much, or little, I’ve learned in two years, and how much I have still to learn in the video clip below.)

Some things I have learned about playing classical guitar since I walked in to my first lesson just over two years ago:

Playing a piece of music beautifully at a fraction of full speed is infinitely better than playing it awfully at full speed.

Perserving and playing a grade 2 piece well is preferable to trying to play a grade 6 piece and doing it badly.

When performing, a common nervous reaction is to begin playing 15 to 20% more quickly than you did when practising. This more or less guarantees your performance will be disastrous. Slow down more than you think you should and enjoy the piece.

If you can play a piece of music flawlessly and slowly, you can play it properly at full speed. Conversely if you haven’t eliminated mistakes at slow speed, they multiply and magnify the more quickly you try to play.

Ego doesn’t matter. Technique does. If the piece sounds awful, it sounds awful. It doesn’t mean you’re slow or stupid. You just haven’t mastered stuff you need to master.

You don’t know a piece of music until you can perform it flawlessly, repeatedly. How well you think you play in practice is irrelevant.

Playing whole pieces of music from start to finish many times in sequence is not a way to practice effectively. You are just practising your mistakes and making them permanent.

The rhythmn of a piece matters. A crochet is not a quaver, rests should not be ignored and doted notes mean something. Learn the correct rythmn before trying to play the notes.

The left and right hands have different, complementary jobs to do. Don’t expect to play good music until your hands and fingers have had a chance to develop dexterity and strength. This will take years (and tears).

Videoing yourself is a good way to simulate the stress and tension of performancance, and so helps you prepare yourself. It is also a good way to pinpoint shortcomings in practice.

Videoing yourself also tells you more about how you move your eyes and hold your mouth than you might want to know.

A short video clip where I tried to play more slowly and accurately than I usually do. Something tells me I should be a bit self conscious about this, plodding along with the guitar for all to see, but life is too short.

A Cheeky Manifesto

(Looking up towards the Old Man of Stour, Isle of Skye, Scotland. One of my favourite places)

[Manifesto A public declaration of intentions or opinions. A list of principles.]

I’ve challenged myself to distil some principles for living authentically and faithfully in a secular culture. I am me, and I am comfortable in my skin. I am not an exceptionally holy or good Christian, as I’ve tried to make clear in what follows. I wrote this as an exercise in reflection, not to dismiss people who think differently. It’s more a checklist that helps me clarify what I can and should bend with, and what warrants my active resistance to the status quo.

It’s not complete of course; more a living document than a definitive one. I hope you find it interesting or food for thought.

So, to begin, in no particular order.

Some things matter. Some don’t. Things like wealth and possessions seem like they matter, but they don’t. On the other hand, people always matter. It’s wise to hesitate before putting principles and things ahead of people.

Winning arguments doesn’t matter, but giving in and compromising values in the face of bullying is cowardice, and does matter greatly.

It’s tempting to look for simple solutions and pat answers. It can also be foolish.

There are all sorts of simple remedies for complex problems. Some would be effective if people were willing to listen to them. Be kind. Work hard. Give generously. Have respect. Spend wisely. Avoid blaming. Drive carefully. But then I guess we don’t like listening to advice, do we?

Life is complex and messy. People are too, and sometimes they need some slack cut for them. Certain behaviours and choices don’t warrant my approval, but neither do I need to spend my life running around condemning them.

I will resist the temptation to apologise for who I am. Admitting to having Christian faith carries a social cost. It is regarded variously with degrees of embarassment, amusement or contempt. The surest way to silence a social gathering is to mention the God or Jesus words. I will be polite and sensitive, but I will say what I think and believe regardless of any social cost.

Religion and faith are two quite different things. One does not presuppose the other. Religion is about outward conformity with ceremonies, rules, dogma, and power structures. Churches generally do religion quite well. Faith on the other hand is an intensely personal thing, not governed easily by those rules, dogmas or power structures. In my experience, churches do not do faith as well as they do religion. As I grow older I am becoming less religious and more faithful.

Life is a gift. It is not to be taken lightly or thrown away. Killing someone is wrong, whether it is done in retribution, in a fit of temper, or for social convenience. Abortion and euthanasia come to mind here, as although both practices have powerful emotive justifications, killing is what they involve, and killing is what they are. I should and will speak out against the unjust taking of life.

Having said that, I can think of a few scenarios when I would be sorely tempted to take someone else’s life.

I’ll take miracles when they come, every time. Some would rather tell me at length and tediously why miracles are impossible and that only stupid people would believe they occur. I leave them to their opinions. May they bring them comfort.

A lot of people I know have dismissed Jesus Christ on the basis of caricatures met as a child, or as a result of abuses committed by churches in his name. They would do well to reconsider with adult eyes. His message of radical love transforms lives and undermines the power structures of secular society (and churches). Today the establishment ignores him, ridicules his followers and thinks it has won. They have never understood who they are dealing with.

Prayer is not just a wish list, like something I might once have left in a Christmas stocking. Closer to me than my breath or my heartbeat, it transcends time and space, and opens dimensions of experience those bound in the everyday could not imagine. When I pray I can be completely myself, open to my creator God. That’s on a good day. Sometimes I admit I stare at my hands and wait for inspiration that doesn’t come.

Truth is not determined by popular or majority opinion. Wrong does not become right, or right become wrong simply because 51% of citizens vote that way. My conscience and values are not manipulated by popular opinion. That doesn’t mean I don’t listen to and learn from others, or never change my attitudes. It means just what it says.

Evil is real. It is personal and it walks among us. Those who ignore or deny the existence of evil aren’t paying attention.

It’s not all about me. Our culture has been obsessed with self gratification for so long now, it seems natural and a self evident good.

It is not. We have allowed ourselves to be conned.

How often have I heard “I/we should be able to do whatever I/we like as long as we are not hurting anyone else” trotted out to justify a self indulgent choice? It is a nonsense; a deceptive argument. How can I know I’m not hurting anyone else? I am not a reliable judge of whether others are unaffected by my selfishness. The ‘not hurting anyone’ defence of self indulgent, decadent life choices deserves nothing but contempt. Having said that, I’m rather fond of wine and can become a tad defensive when my wife suggests I might be too fond of it.

It is not wise to worship myself. If I value my choices, my desires, my interests, above those of my fellow travellers (and don’t we all, here and there and now and then), I am effectively worshipping myself. Placing myself at the centre of things is delusional and ultimately destructive.

In the same way, trying to control other people, in whatever way I try to do it, is self defeating, as the very intention and act diminishes both myself and those I seek to dominate. Humility doesn’t come naturally, but anything less is inevitably an abuse of power. Removing myself from the throne of self regard is a step on the road to genuinely appreciating others and becoming fully human.

Turning the other cheek’ is a misunderstood and misused Christian principle. It does not mean Christians should make wimpy doormats of themselves. Turning the other cheek can be an act of defiance when my adversary seeks to make me cower. It is a metaphor for non violent resistance. Meekness is a world away from subservience. However, in confronting evil, I should be careful not to become that which I resist by fighting evil with evil. I should be careful, for example, that my blog posts do not reflect the ugliness that characterises much commentary on social media. Abuse, name calling and demonising those who see things differently is always counter productive. It never leads to a just solution, or brings people together. However, driving in traffic, sitting in meetings, or waiting in supermarket checkout lines, I can tend to forget this.

I should remember that confronting evil can exact a high personal price. Talk is cheap. Standing up in the face of evil can not only cost me my peace of mind, my friends and my reputation. It could cost me my freedom and my life. I am not a particularly brave person however, and am not prone to poking my head above the parapet, except in blog posts.

I could go on, but will content myself with an executive summary:

Western culture seeks to have me adapt my faith to fit with its norms. Ultimately, when push comes to shove, I reserve the right to refuse. I hope the necessary courage is there when I need it.

Thanks for reading.

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