Uncomfortably Slow

“Travelling again
I know exactly how it’s gonna end
The routine day dream starts as I get off
I’m holding up the queue
Because my ticket won’t go through
I know it should be simple but it’s not

So don’t take my photograph
Cos I don’t wanna know how it looks
To feel like this
As cars and people pass
It feels like standing still but I know
I’m just moving uncomfortably slow

Something’s gotta change
I know i’m lucky in a lot of ways
So why do I want more
Than what I have?
Brace myself to hear the lies
I wonder if they know that I
Don’t get the jokes but I just
Need to laugh

So don’t take my photograph
Cos I don’t wanna know how it looks
To feel like this
As cars and people pass
It feels like standing still but I know
I’m just moving uncomfortably slow”

The lyrics above are from the song ‘Uncomfortably Slow’ by Newton Faulkner off his album ‘Hand Built By Robots’ (Awesome album, buy it!). I was on the bus on my way to work this morning, listening to music on my phone when this song came on. I had a wry, somewhat joyless smile on my face as it neatly summed up how I have been feeling on my bad days, including the last 2-3 days.

“The routine daydream” is exactly that. Getting through on autopilot, as if it’s happening to someone else, but I still have to interact with everything and everyone. Humdrum, routine, same old thing day in, day out until it ceases to feel real. I really don’t want to know how it feels to look like this. Who does?

Hearing someone else articulating those feelings is somewhat comforting. It helps me to get out of the confines of my own head and realise that feeling this way is far from uncommon. Knowing that I’m not alone in going through this crap in my mind means that I can move away from feeling that I’m being totally self absorbed, but rather that I’m ill and need to try and get better.

The thing is that, as much as I love this song, it only offers me despair. It only reflects depression back upon the people listening to the song who are living with it. I need to hear something which talks about the black thoughts in their head, but demonstrates that there is also hope. Thank God for the Psalms,

“As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while they say to me all the day long,
“Where is your God?”
These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I would go with the throng
and lead them in procession to the house of God
with glad shouts and songs of praise,
a multitude keeping festival.
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.
My soul is cast down within me;
therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
from Mount Mizar.
Deep calls to deep
at the roar of your waterfalls;
all your breakers and your waves
have gone over me.
By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
and at night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life.
I say to God, my rock:
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning
because of the oppression of the enemy?”
As with a deadly wound in my bones,
my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me all the day long,
“Where is your God?”
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.” (Psalm 42:1-11 ESV)

The Psalmist writes of a depression way beyond anything I have ever experienced, I’m glad to say. Tears are his food and drink, his soul is “cast down” and in turmoil. He fears that God has forgotten him, whilst his enemies ask where his God has gone. He is at a desperately low ebb, constantly reflecting on the same dark thoughts and feelings as if he is in a cycle which he just can’t break free from.

Sounds familiar.

However, unlike Newton Faulkner, the Psalmist offers hope. Rather, that is, God offers hope. As he falls deeper into the pit of depression he keeps coming back to the one thing which he can cling onto with any certainty. The one, constant, unchanging hope in his life.

” Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.”

He will continue to praise God in order that he will, once again, praise God. It seems like an oxymoron, but what he’s doing is praising God with his head because he knows that God will lift him out of the pit and put his feet on solid ground (as he says in Psalm 40). Then he will be able to praise God with his head, heart and soul as he will have been set free.

I have no doubt that, by writing his feelings down, as I am with this blog, he will have been helped a great deal. Getting your feelings out of the muddle in your head and expressing them to others is amazing therapy for some, including myself. On its own, though, it’s not quite enough. Help and support from loved ones, therapy from trained people and medication all help too. The best remedy, however, is the best hope we have. The one, true hope of life. The one who the Psalmist put his hope in.

And so will I.

A tale of hypocrisy

People are being told not to wear crosses at work! This is a disgrace! I mean, all other jewellery is banned at the same workplaces, but this is a chilling erosion of our Christian heritage. It doesn’t matter that there is absolutely no obligation to wear one for Christians, we must listen to those in the Church calling for us all to have the right to wear small pieces of metal.

People are being disciplined at work for refusing to offer services to homosexual couples. Religious freedoms are being overridden by the gay mafia! It’s a step too far. I don’t care if those being disciplined have had other disciplinary problems at work. I don’t care that they have chosen a profession which, by definition, would see them helping gay couples. I don’t care that my idea of freedom is being allowed to let my prejudices curtail the freedom of others. We must listen to those in the Church who say that homosexuality is an abomination and that they want to treat gay relationships as second class.

People are being duped into consciously living a life on benefits. They scrounge whatever they can because the last government cruelly allowed them to fall into this existence of dependence on the state. We must get them off of this as quickly as possible. So, it turns out that more people need food banks now, that’s only because they’re squandering money elsewhere. So, people are struggling to pay the rent because we’ve reduced their housing benefit because they need an extra room in their house due to their disability, we have declared war on a broken benefits system. We must listen to those in the Church who…

What?!

A load of clergy have said that WE are responsible for increasing poverty? They say that the welfare system needs reforming, but we’re doing it wrong?!

Well, it just goes to show what we’ve always said. The Church is out of touch with the times. These people are nothing but a bunch of raving lefties! I bet some of them only signed that letter out of peer pressure. I’m sure all those who didn’t agree with us, anyway.

We must listen to the Church!

Unless, of course, they agree with us.

Is this the real life, or is this just fantasy?

In February 2013 the second series of Charlie Brooker’s excellent dystopic, technology based series, Black Mirror, kicked off with the story Be Right Back. In it, a young woman called Martha (Hayley Atwell), whose boyfriend, Ash (Domhnall Gleeson) has recently died, finds out about a new technology designed to help people reconnect with deceased loved ones. By allowing a company access to Ash’s whole online presence, they can build a picture of his personality, memories, beliefs etc which enable her to speak to ‘Ash’ online.

This is so convincing for her that, after uploading recordings of his voice, she is able to have phone conversations with this virtual Ash. It eventually progresses to a lifelike Ash robot, uploaded with his ‘personality’ which comes to live with her.

Here, the problems started, as it became clear that ‘Ash’ has no emotions, unless Martha tells him to display them. He won’t argue, disagree or debate anything with her. He is ultimately nothing more than a very clever robot. He is not Ash, no matter how convincing some of the superficial elements were.

And how could he be? He was simply an amalgamation of things Ash had posted on various social media sites, not the whole person. There was no way he could be a replacement for the real Ash, or even that realistic in the long run.

I, and many others, will have thought about this drama when journalist Simon Ricketts posted this on Twitter.

20140221-073307 am.jpg

If you go to the Eterni.Me site it asks you,

” What if your children or grand children would know more about you and your life? What if they would be more like you, think more like you?

What if all the important events, adventures and thoughts in your life would be accessible to future generations, who never met the real you?

And what if, more than that, they could really interact with your memories, as if they were talking to you in person?

Eterni.me collects almost everything that you create during your lifetime, and processes this huge amount of information using complex Artificial Intelligence algorithms.

Then it generates a virtual YOU, an avatar that emulates your personality and can interact with, and offer information and advice to your family and friends after you pass away.

It’s like a Skype chat from the past.”

All under the streamline “Simply become immortal”.

Really?!

It isn’t the only website out there offering this, but it was the one which grabbed my attention. Especially as it is so close to the initial premise of Be Right Back. Ok, we’re not at the stage of phone conversations or life-like robot versions of our departed loved ones, but it the similarities between what Eterni.Me is offering and Martha’s original web chats with ‘Ash’ are uncanny.

I can see the attraction. Grief and loss are two of the hardest emotions to deal with, as anyone who has been through them (including most people reading this) will tell you. Pain, anger, denial, despair, depression are all natural parts of the grieving process. It’s a horrible time which almost everyone will experience at some stage in their life and all those who do will look back on with immense sadness.

You do, however, get to look back on it. At some stage the grieving slows, then ceases and the process of living starts up again. One thing never leaves you, though. The void that person, and all you would have experienced with them, leaves in your life.

When I was 20, my Dad, Michael, died very suddenly. He was only 44 years old. He never met my wife or any of my children (my daughter was born a year, almost to the day, after he died). I never had him around during any of my adult years. I missed his advice and guidance on being a father and a husband (he was fantastic on both counts). I missed out on sharing my joys, pains, celebrations and everything else with him. As did my Mum and sister. I would give anything to have him back.

That is what Eterni.Me is trading on. The millions of us who would give anything to have a certain person back again. The chance to hear from them, their advice, humour, views, almost their voice again. Introduce your children, spouse, grand children to them. A chance to have them back again.

Here’s the thing, though. My Dad died before the internet age, so I couldn’t do this with him even if I wanted to. But I wouldn’t want to. It wouldn’t be my Dad. No amount of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, blog, Reddit or any other online activity can make the person. It’s simply a snapshot, a glimpse into what the person was like. Very often it’s simply a glimpse at the person that you want to present to the world, rather than the person inside.

No amount of uploads would ever give me back my Dad’s sense of humour. It would never give me the little words of wisdom he would give me. I’d never get a moment like that burst of sheer joy when I passed my driving test. I’d never feel his love.

The same goes for all of us. We are more than words, thoughts, reactions, jokes, remarks and the like, we don’t just have a mind. We have a heart. We have a soul. We all have that divine, God given breath of life which makes each of us a unique, remarkable, beautiful, unpredictable being. That can’t be replicated and spat out using “Artificial intelligence algorithms”.

“Then God said,

“Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.”
(Genesis 1:26-27 NIV)

We are made in God’s image, not the image of ones and zeros. We are made in the divine image, not an electronic one.

Nothing can get back a person once lost, no matter how much we wish and pray that we could. Death and loss are a valuable, though painful, part of life. We learn from it. We draw closer to others from it. We suffer from it, yes, but from that suffering we can draw strength. Not everyone manages it and, certainly, everyone would rather we didn’t go through it at all, but we can come through it as stronger people.

Death is an integral part of life. Life is, after Jesus, the greatest gift God has given to us. We can’t replace it with websites. If we try, we may fail to appreciate all of its wonders while we still have it.

Whose work is it anyway?

This afternoon I was in a meeting at work. It was one of those meetings which had no obvious purpose, but still filled its allotted time. One of those meetings which turned into people, justifiably, moaning about being overworked with no light at the end of the tunnel. One of those meetings which made you want to pick up your things, walk out and never come back.

Then these words came to mind,

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters” (Colossians 3:23 NIV)

And I thought, really?! Really, Paul?! You want me to look at this as like working for God? This is pensions admin, not missionary work. I have no time to actually do my job because I spend all my time doing my job (and, somehow, that actually makes sense!). We’re all doing the jobs of three people with questions asked when stuff isn’t done. Within two minutes of arriving I already feel beaten down and running out of time. Everyone is miserable about the standards they’re expected to live up to, but can’t. Several have been off with stress or anxiety. I’m supposed to be dealing with depression in this environment. Yet you think I should see it as if I’m working for the Lord?!

I train people to process applications for pension transfers, I don’t feed the hungry, dress the poor, comfort the grieving, preach to the deaf, heal the sick or do anything remotely worthwhile. How is that like working for God, Paul? How?!

Then, I heard a voice. Not audibly. Not like ‘hearing voices’. More of an impression of a voice, pushing through the self pitying ranting of my mind.

I know the voice.

I should do, He is always trying to say something. I’m just not always ready or willing to listen.

I can hear Him now, though.

“Give Paul a break. He’s right. He knows what he’s talking about. I told him to say it!

You think this is tough? You think this is pressure? You have a job. A regular income, bills paid, food on the table, a roof over your head.

Think of the unemployed, scrabbling around on small change in homes where the landlord won’t fix the boiler or Windows, but still charges the earth in rent for it.

Think of those who have final demands piling up on the doormat. Scared of every knock at the door or ring on the phone in case it brings homelessness.

Think of those starving, scared and alone in Syria, Somalia, North Korea or many other places where poverty, war, oppression or all three are a daily prescence.

Think of those who are persecuted because of their faith in Me. You have freedom to worship, meet others in My name, write a blog proclaiming your faith. Others have to meet in secret, in fear of their lives if they are even seen with a Bible.

And you think middle-class, first-world problems are tough?

You have a wife and family who love you.

You have a nice home.

You have a job where you have the responsibility for developing others. Helping them to build skills and knowledge. Helping them to realise their own potential, to turn around faltering careers, to mentor new staff, to be the best they can be at their jobs. To help make their Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 existences as rewarding as they can be.

How is that not My work?”

And He’s right. Of course He is. When isn’t He?

So, I will. I’ll work with all my heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.

Because that’s exactly what I’m doing. We all are. We just need to listen and find out how.

Another man’s shoes

In July 2005 my family and I moved from Swanage in Dorset, a lovely seaside town on the south coast with quite a tight knit community, to Larbert, a town just outside Falkirk in central Scotland. I had been married for 10 years at that stage to a woman who was born in Falkirk, moved to England when she was 3, and always fancied moving back again. So, on holiday, I went past a branch in Edinburgh of the bank I was working for at the time, popped in to enquire whether they had any jobs going and, six weeks later, we moved with our three young children.

It was an exciting time. I love Scotland. Its culture, its scenery, its history, its people and its incredibly strong sense of identity (as well as its haggis and Irn Bru!) are all so inviting and friendly. There was, for me, one concern, though. How would the Scots take to me, an Englishman, living and working here.

I knew that there was a strong rivalry, especially where sport was concerned, and that there was an increasing level of support for independence. All of the views which were presented to me, some by members of my wife’s family, suggested that there was a large anti-English feeling in Scotland. Most of this was media inflicted, either by a nationalistic Scottish media or an aloof, condescending English media, but it was evidently there. It worried me that, as soon as people heard my accent, I would be the subject of vitriol for some. I was scared that I may not be allowed to settle comfortably and that maybe my children would be the target of anti-English bullying at school.

In the end, these fears were totally unfounded. The people I live and work with, the children my kids went to school with, and everyone else we’ve encountered here could not be friendlier, more welcoming and more inclusive. Yes, the rivalry is there, but it’s friendly rivalry. Yes, the anti-English media sentiment is there, but it doesn’t extend to a dislike of the English people. In fact, I have found myself joining in with critical ism of many quarters of the UK media who don’t seem to see north of Hadrian’s Wall or, in most cases, the Watford Gap. This country is home to me now. I have many Scottish phrases in my own speech, hold a season ticket to my local football team, Stenhousemuir, I’m a Church of Scotland member and refer to the people of Scotland as “we”. I love it here.

It took me living and working here for me to appreciate the people and the reasons any rivalry may be there. I can even see why many want independence, something I couldn’t even fathom 9 years ago.

This is the case for all of us. There are many people living in situations we can’t begin to fathom. People living in poverty, abusive households, living with addiction, different political views, different nationalities, different religions, social isolation, different social class, different pressures and expectations to our own. We find it all too easy to view these lives through the prisms of our own circumstances and experiences. This can all too easily lead to lack of understanding, fundamentalism and fear.

What do we think of the 45 year old drug addict, squatting in an empty flat? Do we look down on him for getting himself I to that situation, or do we ask what drove him to drugs and what could help him back off them? What about the 19 year old single mother of 3 who lives off benefits in a council house? Is she just an irresponsible scrounge, having kids to sponge off the state? Or is she a caring, loving mother, raising her children in the best way she can so they have a better chance in life? What about the public schoolboy with convictions for driving under the influence of drink and drugs? A spoilt brat with no sense of responsibility, or a young man who finds it impossible to live up to the expectations placed upon him and has found the wrong outlet for his frustrations and insecurities?

In To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee wrote this,

“You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Few things are more true than this. We cannot hope to understand until we have made the effort to do so, until we have taken the time to step into the shoes of people in situations different to ourselves. We need to listen and talk, to visit and, if called to do so, live in places alien to us. Only when we break down the barriers which exist in society and within our own heads will we start to understand, empathise and make a positive difference.

Jesus did this all of the time. He hung out with prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, beggars, Roman soldiers, Samaritans, adulterers and even (shock, horror!) women. He did this to set us all the ultimate example. He didn’t say that He condoned people’s life choices, but He did this to understand so that He could show them a better way. THE better Way.

One of the most famous examples happened in Luke’s gospel, and Jesus explained why He did this,

“Then Levi had a big feast in his house for Jesus, and among the guests was a large number of tax collectors and other people.  Some Pharisees and some teachers of the Law who belonged to their group complained to Jesus’ disciples. “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and other outcasts?” they asked.
Jesus answered them, “People who are well do not need a doctor, but only those who are sick.  I have not come to call respectable people to repent, but outcasts.”” (Luke 5:29-32 GNT)

We are all outcasts, in one form or another, and Jesus comes to call us. He also comes to call all those who we may see as outcasts. Shall we condemn and fear them, or do we take up Jesus’ call to show them the way, the truth and the life He brings. It is understanding and love we must show. To all. It’s not just what Jesus would do, it’s what He did. What He does. What He asks us to do.

You’re all my neighbour

Ethiopia – A country struck by a devastating famine 30 years ago which, despite decent growth recently, still experiences crippling poverty and very little equality for girls and women.

Nigeria – A country where 100 million people live on less than $1.25 per day

Bangladesh – A country with little political stability. 1 in 19 children die by the age of 5 and 120,000 new born children die every year.

Pakistan – A country whose instability is exacerbated by extreme poverty. 1 in 11 children die before they reach 5, 14,000 mothers die in childbirth and 1 in 10 of the World’s out of school children live here.

Democratic Republic of Congo – A country trying to recover from a devastating civil war, where banditry is still rife.

These are the five countries who the UK gives the most out of our overseas aid budget, not to mention those affected by natural disasters in the Philippines and Haiti (millions of people in both) and the awful conflict in Syria, including 20,000 refugee children in Lebanon given schoolboys recently.

These are the people who many in our country, most notably those signing the Daily Mail’s petition, feel we should stop, or at least reduce, giving aid to in favour of the victims of the floods in the south of England.

Now, I have to say first off that my heart goes out to those affected. It must be awful beyond my comprehension and they need as much help as we can give as quickly as we can give it. Here’s the thing, though. The UK has the money, resources, manpower and infrastructure to get over this fairly quickly. We don’t need the Disasters Emergency Committee to put out a global appeal because we are one of the World’s richest countries.

Yes, people will be without a home, possessions or even basic sanitation for a while. It’s horrible for them and I pray that it is sorted for them quickly. Imagine, though, never having a home, possessions or basic sanitation. Ever. This is reality for millions of men, women and children throughout the World. Surely as one of the richest countries, one who has made its fortune off the back of less fortunate nations, by plundering the World’s resources and talent, is is our moral obligation to help those abroad as well as at home?

To decide that people in far off lands are less deserving because of an accident of birth, because they don’t fit the “hard working families” myth, because of the selfish notion that charity begins at home, totally destroys any notion that we hold that the UK is a Christian country.

Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan. At the moment we seem to want to fulfil the role of the Pharisee or the Levite, passing on the other side of the road and ignoring someone in need because our priorities lie elsewhere. Where are the good Samaritans? Those willing to speak out and say that we can and should help all those in need, regardless of race, religion, nationality or geographical location?

We can’t allow ourselves to become a nation whose idea of fairness is that you get out what you put in. Some have little or nothing to put in, so we must do what we can to help them. We don’t know for sure that, one day, we won’t be the ones with nothing. Will we then have the idea that we are undeserving, or will we want, or even demand the help we need?

Let’s stop the culture of self and start a culture of selflessness and equality in the eyes of the God who made us all in His image. Let’s show equal compassion to all in need, rather than letting people fend for themselves if they don’t live within our set of artificially constructed boundaries. Let us love our neighbour. All of them.

Buses, bottoms and rest.

Right now, sitting down hurts.

I go to work on a coach. The company I work for lay them on all over the area to get staff to work for free, as my place of work is away from public transport links. The bus I get has changed recently as they have had to change some routes due to major roadworks. My new bus has a driver who is, to put it mildly, a bit erratic. He pulls away, suddenly, almost as the last person steps on, not giving you a chance to sit down first. Parked cars and speed bumps are inconveniences to be negotiated without slowing. Corners are dealt with in a similar manner.

I sleep on the bus to and from work every day, plugged into my headphones listening to music, so I’m able to zone out of the carnage going on around me most days (no accidents so far). However, this morning I really noticed the driving.

I was walking to my seat as the bus wove in and out of the parked cars like an Olympic skier going down the moguls course. As I went to take my seat the bus suddenly went to the left, throwing me towards the seat. The arm rest was up and bottom and hard plastic came together at speed, connecting just where the bone is.

As I said, sitting down hurts right now.

We all do this, though. Speeding through life, weaving all over the place from place to place. Event to event. Job to job. Relationship to relationship. Sometimes, we’re so busy, so focused on getting to where we want to be, that we fail to notice what’s going on around us.

Sometimes it means people get hurt. Sometimes we miss other opportunities because of our blinkers. Sometimes we miss the beauty of the things or people around us. Sometimes we just burn out.

As the great philosopher Ferris Bueller said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

In the modern world, stopping and looking around once in a while can be very difficult. We have so many pressures put upon us from all kinds of sources, including ourselves, that we often don’t feel that we are able to take time out for anything.

We have to, though. We weren’t designed to be on the go constantly. Our bodies and our minds need rest and refreshment. We need time and space to just be us, to be able to take stock and recharge the batteries.

A much greater and wiser man, even than Ferris Bueller, was Jesus. He said this,

“My Father has given me all things. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
Come to me, all of you who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke and put it on you, and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in spirit; and you will find rest.  For the yoke I will give you is easy, and the load I will put on you is light.” (Matthew 11:27-30 GNT)

We are designed to take rest. Rest from work, rest from worries (easier said than done!), rest from all the commitments we make to others, rest from our responsibilities. We can take these to Jesus and He will lighten the load. It may be that we start to see the wood for the trees and can figure things out clearer. It may be that we find others to help us with our load. It may be that we find the strength to ask for the help we need. It may just be that the rest helps us to recharge so that we can face the challenges ahead.

One thing I’m sure of is that Jesus gives us the rest we need, if we can just stop for a while and look for Him.

Maybe we’ll avoid landing on our backsides so often too.