Deal or no deal, accept or reject

With the country waiting to see what would emerge from the Brexit talks, everyone is hoping that good decisions will be made in the next few hours. That made me start wondering about how we make the right choice when crunch time comes. Here’s the resulting thought. Listen again on BBC Sounds at around 7.20am or read the transcript below:

Good morning. 

Tea or coffee? Take the bus or take the car? Deal or no deal? Accept or reject? 

According to a cursory search of the internet, human beings make around 35 000 decisions every day. Obviously, not all choices carry the weight of those being discussed by parliamentarians at present, but there’s an argument that small decisions shape who we become, and equip us for the really big moments.   

‘Life is a matter of choices, and every choice you make makes you,’ wrote leadership guru John C Maxwell, and, while the likes of Barack Obama and Bill Gates opt to eliminate ‘decision fatigue’, by only ever wearing the same outfit, our character is formed in the everyday choices that we make and the manner in which we make them.

There’s a verse from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah that talks about the importance of strengthening ourselves for when hard decisions have to be made. 

If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses?

If you stumble in safe country, how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?     

We all know the importance of diet and training in building physical strength, but I wonder how much thought we give to building our emotional resilience and spiritual wisdom as we make our 35 000 daily decisions.

Qualities like perseverance, patience and an ability to negotiate well with those who hold an opposing view don’t magically appear when we’re faced with life altering circumstances. Rather, they are grown over time, the fruit of choosing to live selflessly. The theologian Eugene Peterson who died recently, quotes the verse from Jeremiah when talking about the long walk of obedience as a follower of Christ. If we want to live bold, decisive lives, says Peterson, we need to cultivate habits of wisdom and reflection. There’s merit in preparing ourselves in our daily choices, so when the moment comes wisdom and reflection will guide our big decisions.

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Whales, penguins and diving deep

There’s an irony about the fact that on the day I talked about depth and moments of stillness, I was too busy to post a link to my Thought for the Day. So busy, in fact, that the Thought has now disappeared into the depths of the radio ocean, never to be heard again. However, if you’d like to take a moment read about whales and penguins, and reflect on the need for depth, the text is below:

Good morning.

Like many of us, I’ve been fascinated and concerned by the progress of the beluga whale spotted this week in the River Thames. There is something deeply unsettling about watching this enormous white mammal surfacing and diving into the choppy estuary waters. It’s incongruous. It doesn’t belong there. 

A few years ago, while at drama school, I spent more hours than I care to remember at Edinburgh Zoo watching the penguins in order to replicate their movement and sounds as part of a movement class. Like the beluga whale, penguins are fascinating to observe. Ungainly, clumsy and with no sense of personal space they lumber around on the ground until the moment when they dive elegantly into the water. There they swim speedily and efficiently, before popping onto dry land in a vertical movement. Clumsy and out of place on the surface, but elegant and transcendent when in their natural habitat, and allowed to do what they were designed to do. 

Taking a moment to observe a whale out of place or penguin skidding around a rock can perhaps bring a moment of clarity for human beings in the middle of life’s busyness. Each of us is uniquely made, with personality, ability and purpose, but so many of us spend our time and energy on activity that is not purposeful. 

Watching the beluga in the Thames reminded me of a children’s poem about whales  that I love by broadcaster, Stewart Henderson. It describes the surface of the water as being full of oil slicks and ships, and goes on to say:

We don’t tarry long there, we breach then we dive
deep to the depths, where our souls are alive

It’s a poem about whales, but that’s just on a surface reading. We all need to find depth in our life, moments to dive down into stillness, away from the clutter. Whether that moment comes from observing a moment in nature, listening to piece of music or reading a psalm or even a poem about a whale, it’s worth plumbing the depths every now and again lest we end up out of place, splashing around in the busyness, stress and noise.

If you’d like to read the whole of Stewart Henderson’s lovely poem When You’re A Whale from his book, Who Left Grandad at the Chip Shop? you can buy it here:

The teenagers we deserve

When I arrived at the BBC this morning there were other, much cooler, vehicles parked outside. Once I’d negotiated the flightpath to the building, I was talking about teenagers, self-harm and confidence. You can listen again here at 1:22:10 or read the Thought below (and you can go and look at the Spitfires and Harriers at Pacific Quay until 2 September).

J.B.Priestley once said that ‘Like its politicians and its war, society has the teenagers it deserves.’ As someone who works with dramatic teenagers, this seems a rather dismissive comment. Not all teenagers are the same, and not all teenagers are a nuisance. Many are creative, caring and concerned about the environment, politics and injustice. Many of the teenagers I know hold beliefs that challenge my cynical middle-age opinions.

But, as is frequently revealed in surveys, lots of young people also struggle with emotional pain and mental illness. A report issued yesterday revealed that of 11000 children surveyed in the UK, 22% of girls and 9% of boys admit to self-harming. If Priestley is right, then what does this tell us about our society? How did we arrive at the place where, for a large number of young people, the only outlet for emotional pain is to inflict physical harm on their own bodies? And what do we need to change about society as proof that these are not acceptable statistics?

From an early age children are encouraged to be whoever they want to be. At the same time we criticise their risk-taking behaviour, we allow them wander alone into an online world of comparison, and we let them down by failing to provide the stability they crave. Teenagers aren’t actually any different from the rest of us. They need community, purpose and encouragement. They need to know that they are loved. 

Psalm 139 reminds us that God takes a high view of humanity. The writer states:

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

your works are wonderful,

I know that full well.

How many of us, old or young, would be prepared to say confidently that we are fearfully and wonderfully made? I’m not naive enough to think that self-harm will be eradicated by hugging a hoodie, but I’m sure that instilling confidence and a sense of being valued in the next generation is an important part of giving them the best possible chance of proving that they are fearful and wonderful beings. 

Back to School

I was in Lockerbie Academy today leading some training in communication with their staff team. Alongside the serious work of thinking about our content, framing and delivery,  we also laughed a lot,  and I had the opportunity to encourage them that the work they are engaged in has lasting significance and value in the lives of the young people they encounter.

It’s in the same spirit that I wrote and performed a short poem/prayer at church yesterday. At this time of year, as we launch into a new season of school, work and routine tasks, it can be tempting to forget the purpose behind it all. God is building a kingdom or hope, and all of us get to play air part in that. Perhaps this poem will help and encourage you as the summer ends.

It’s back to school
And back to work
Pick up the everyday routine
Of new shoes and old paths
Schoolbags and packed lunches, laptops and half-forgotten logins
Early morning rush
And creeping evening darkness

No more the lazy days of choosing what to do
Of sunny faces, ice cream
And long summer sunsets
And time to be, just be
Autumn looms and life charges in
With drizzle and darkness, central heating and soup
The creep of winter and fear of what lies ahead
The resumption of responsibility
Pulled from the longing to linger

It’s back to school
And time to learn anew
The value of fresh encounter with you
Of knowing you in the minute by minute
Of enjoying your pleasure in the everyday
Of knowing our purpose and your presence
With us, in the dishes, and the pencil case and the early morning run

It’s time to sigh with thankfulness for summer well spent
To apply ourselves again to what you ask
To commit in the routine to know your
‘well done’ whispered over us
To know your
‘I am with you’
In the hard times and the joy
To dwell in your peace
In the darkness and the unknown

It’s back to school
It’s back to you
It’s kingdom come
And serving you wherever you may lead us next
And may your kingdom come in our hearts
In our homes
In our studies
In our work
In our families
In our calling
May your kingdom come and may your will be done
In us
In the everyday
Today and everyday

Twice blessed

Breezy reflections on Thought for the Day this morning on a gun amnesty, the quality of mercy and God’s choice to forget our transgressions.

As ever, you can listen again here at 01:23:09, or read the text below.

If you’ve got an old gun kicking about, then now is the time to do something about it. Police Scotland’s two week amnesty means that any unlicensed firearms and ammunition can be surrendered without prosecution. Although firearms offences are at a low level, the aim of the exercise is to remove the potential for guns to fall into the hands of those who might use them in the pursuit of criminal activity.  

The word ‘amnesty’ is an interesting one. Many of think about the work of Amnesty International, an organisation that has campaigned for justice for individuals for almost 60 years, but the root of the word has more to do with mercy and pardon than justice. An amnesty is an intentional choice to forget, a decision to release another from an obligation in order to win peace. It takes courage and a willingness to lay aside our desire for victory but, as Shakespeare wrote, mercy bestows blessing on those who receive it and those who give it. 

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
(The Merchant of Venice IV, 1)

The act of forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian message, and in the psalms we find verses that describe the mercy of God in his amnesty towards human selfishness. 

For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
(Psalm 103:12)

Acts of amnesty, or mercy, bring freedom and fresh beginnings for nations and individuals. Scotland has a low gun crime rate at present, and bold initiatives such as the Violence Reduction Unit have seen a decrease in knife crime over the past decade, but we all carry anger and grudges in our hearts. Perhaps an amnesty on words, rivalry and hatred would also set us free and bring some peace to our lives.

Something that will convince the world

Today’s thought for the day centred around the 150th anniversary of the birth of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and encouraged us to think beyond the here and now. As ever, you can listen again here at 01:22:58 or read the script below. On a side note it was also good to meet Dr Deborah McNeill from the Glasgow Science Festival who was enthusiastic about all the events happening across the city in the next fortnight. You can check out these events by clicking the link above.

Good morning.

The artist and architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh was born 150 years ago today. There are numerous opportunities to rediscover his work in Glasgow over the summer, and the new V & A museum in Dundee will include a full restoration of his Oak Room tearoom when it opens later this year. Even if you have never visited one of Mackintosh’s buildings, you will undoubtedly be familiar with his designs from a tea-towel, mug or coaster.

Like many visionary artists, Mackintosh was not always acclaimed in his lifetime, and his work did not receive the same degree of interest at home as it did in Europe. Now, however, he is regarded as one of Scotland’s greatest creative influences. What he would make of the tea-towels is debatable.

In a lecture given in 1902, Mackintosh stated:

Art is the Flower. Life is the Green Leaf. Let every artist strive to make his flower a beautiful living thing, something that will convince the world that there may be, there are, things more precious, more beautiful – more lasting than life itself.

Legacy is something we recognise in hindsight. The green leaf of life is often misunderstood until the flower blossoms much later, and the task of the artist in convincing the world of what could be, can feel fruitless during his or her lifetime. 

Whether or not we are artistic, the idea of striving to leave something beautiful behind is an appealing one, but in the day to day reality of existence, we seldom live with such high-minded purpose. 

The apostle Paul encouraged the Christians in Philippi to choose not to grumble or argue, but to shine like stars in the sky. Whatever job we do, whatever struggles we face, however dark the world appears today, perhaps we need to encourage one another to keep going, shining like stars and convincing the world that there are things more precious, more beautiful and more lasting than life itself.

Who Am I/TransFormed

I was invited to contribute a spoken word piece at the Catalyst conference at Newton Mearns Baptist Church today.  We were discussing the theology of and pastoral response to issues of gender. As I drove to the conference, a heated discussion was taking place on the Today programme, and I was struck by how quickly our views on this issue become polarised. Binary, if you will. Surely it’s more interesting to turn the question around and answer it a different way…

Here’s the piece I wrote. It draws on Romans 12 and asks the question, Who Am I? I’m happy for it to be used or quoted, so long as it’s used as written, or that chunks are used in their entirety. As ever, all views are my own, and questions are provoked rather than answers given.

Who am I?

One or

Other

Loved or

Lover

Male or

Female 

Gay or

Straight

He or

She

Transitioning

Positioning myself against the crowd

To whisper aloud, ‘Who am I?’

Bi 

Binary

Non-binary

Trans 

Formed

Transformed

…wait

Who am I?

Loved or lover

Good or bad

Designed, refined, broken, mended

Knit together, formed, intended for…what?

To live forgiven 

Driven 

To seek and save

as you have done

A living sacrifice

Wriggling, refusing, stubborn, confusing

Sacrifice of a life laid down

To say that you alone are holy 

but I am wholly yours 

Offered to you in worship

To do as you would please

Conformed not to this world and all its talk of ‘me’s’

For who I am

in you, I AM, is 

An offering

Holy and pleasing to you

Transformed 

Made new

In mind and heart and soul and body

Bound to you

And to your will – good, pleasing and perfect will 

Tested and approved

Heart aligned and spirit moved

To seek and save the lost.

So, who am I

To scorn and hate

To miss the point

Fall out of joint

Through lack of love

And sense of place,

To win the race

But miss the face

Of God that weeps and keeps and waits?

Who am I but yours alone

And so I fall before that throne

And say I offer who I am 

To be transformed

Reformed

Re-assigned

Aligned with your purpose.

For who I am is found in you.

And one or

Other

Loved or

Lover

Male or

Female 

Gay or

Straight

He or

She

Transitioning

Positioning themselves against the crowd

To whisper aloud, ‘Who am I?’

Can be transformed within the One Who Is.

(c) Fiona Stewart/Foolproof Creative Arts 2018

On taxes, nose hair and love

Intergenerational strife is not new, and while social policy change is important, Jesus models a different way of being. Life as a follower of the One who is described as the Alpha and the Omega, beginning and end, is radically counter-cultural, as illustrated in John 13. Thought for the Day this morning followed the release of the New Generational Contract proposed this week by The Resolution Society.  As ever, you can listen again here by scrolling forward to 01:23:00 or simply read it below. Thanks are due to my good friend, Ali Laing, whose quote is used (and exaggerated somewhat!):

Good morning.

I was in a meeting yesterday with a friend who has just had a significant birthday.  “I’ve never been more interested about my hair cuts than I am now I’ve turned 40,” was his main complaint, “And don’t get me started on my nose hair.”

Each generation has its own troubles.

A report released this week by the Resolution Society proposes reforms to help young adults facing stagnant wage levels and the housing crisis. Meanwhile, older people in our society are dealing with care bills, NHS waiting lists and social isolation and the Gen X’ers in the middle are time-poor and emotionally and financially stretched by their responsibilities.

Each generation has its own troubles

Proposals for the ‘New Generational Contract’ include giving a one-off payment to help get under-25s on the housing ladder, introducing a new property tax to target more affluent homeowners and taxing earnings for those over state pension age. Of course, social policy should always be open to review, but there’s perhaps a deeper issue at work here.

Human beings exist as part of families and communities. And families and communities help one another out. Tax and tax reform is part of how society makes decisions, but there is also a deep societal need to reconnect old and young, to create community where there is none, to share our resources and learn to love our neighbour a bit better. Across the generations we need to work together.

During the meal known as The Last Supper Jesus reminded his disciples that following him meant living radically:

‘A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’

Tax breaks are practical to redress any economic imbalance, but practical love for other people will also bring radical change to a world that can be a lonely and anxious place for people of any age.

Actors on the Global Stage

Culture matters. It matters because though cultural engagement we live out our beliefs and values, but it also matters because it’s a means by which people connect, get to know one another and become friends.  This morning’s Thought for the Day offers some reflection on the impact cultural projects have on how we view our enemies. As ever you can listen again here at 01:22:48 or you can just read the text below.

Good morning.

As the diplomatic row between Russia and the UK becomes increasingly tense, we’ve heard this weekend that, in addition to expelling British diplomats, the Russian government is to close down British Council operations there.

Many of us have a sketchy understanding of what the British Council does. An organisation to promote cultural relations sounds rather archaic, a throwback to the days of empire, until you stop and think about the power of the arts.

In its broadest sense, culture is how we understand and shape the world. At a time of huge global tension, it’s tempting to put all our hope in politics and diplomacy. And yet across the world cultural projects foster social and political change. We’ve seen ideological and geographical borders crossed in experiments like The West Eastern Divan Orchestra which brings young Israeli and Arab musicians together. One musician has called it a ‘human laboratory that can express to the whole world how to cope with each other.’

Closer to home, Divided City, a play about sectarianism in Glasgow, has made a huge impact – going from the stage to the classroom with workshops encouraging pupils to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.

Working on an artistic project with people who are different moves us beyond our initial prejudice, reminding us of our shared humanity. Whatever the content of the creative piece, the act of creating or experiencing something together reinforces our sense of identity as image-bearers of a creative God. It’s a lot harder to hate someone when you’ve shared a stage or rehearsal room with them.

Getting world leaders together to perform a play probably won’t bring about world peace, but withdrawing joint creativity limits our understanding of one another.

Jesus taught his disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them. That’s hard when there is opportunity to know people who are different, but in times of tension when those opportunities are no longer available, it is all the more necessary.

Pursuing peace by making friends with – or at least trying to understand – people who are different is not just for the playground – its ripples are felt much further and wider.

 

 

 

Stale-mates and ceasefires

Geri's Game (1997)Thought for the Day this morning was about the difference between ceasing fire and making peace. As usual, you can listen again here at 1:21:21 or you can read the words below.

There’s a short film called Geri’s Game which tells the story of an elderly man playing chess against himself in a park. The first version of Geri outsmarts the second by faking a heart attack, spinning the board round, and playing his opponent’s move, thereby winning a set of dentures from himself. It’s silly, but it’s clever in its portrayal of how conflict is associated with competition, and deviousness. And the metaphor of the stalemate is clear – Geri only wins because the other Geri loses.

On Saturday, the UN security council unanimously voted for a 30-day ceasefire in the besieged eastern Ghouta district of Damascus. But the planned safe passage of humanitarian aid and medical supplies did not occur, as within hours it was apparent that no ceasefire was going to happen. Meanwhile, news that North Korea has offered to begin peace talks with its southern neighbour has been greeted with cynicism by some who suggest that the North is simply trying to drive a wedge between South Korea and the USA. The Korean peninsula has been living in an uneasy state of ceasefire since 1953.

Ceasing fire is not making peace. Too often, ceasing fire is simply taking a break before resuming conflict, or worse still, provoking the opposing side to expose its weakness in order to exploit it.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God”.

To make peace requires enemies to set aside their desire to win, in order to be reconciled. Seeking peace means seeking justice, but also showing mercy. Developing the characteristics of God, loving those who will not obviously love us back.

Pope Francis has described a mediator as “one who retains nothing for himself but rather spends himself generously until he is consumed, knowing that the only gain is peace.”

And that very gain reflects the heart of the God of love reminding us that, in global conflict as in personal relationships, it takes courage and determination to spend yourself generously in order to gain peace.