Groupings – A historic memory of why

There is a lot of hitting out at groupings suggesting that they are causingdecline at present. I have a memory that goes back to the early days of grouping within the URC, and I think it is time to tell the story of why they originated. I am talking of things that happened in my teenage years.

Let’s be clear Congregationalism had a loose form of groupings probably going further back than the 1950s. My father’s first pastorate was “Oundle and Wheeldon” i.e. two separate congregations who had combined resources in order to be able to employ a minister. Equally in my childhood from 1972 my father was the minister for a group of churches. The key characteristic of these groups is that a number of congregations came together to employ a single minister.

In 1976 my Dad stopped being in parish ministry, and we worshipped in an experimental group of churches. That is it had a team of ministers and also a large number of churches. It was a deliberate attempt to go against the then policy which was often to merge small churches together. The statement I remember went along the lines that merge two churches with fifty members and in then years you have a congregations with fifty members. In other words, it was a serious attempt to reduce the decline closure and merger was creating. The argument was that people were motivated to keep their congregation going but were often not motivated to keep the merged congregation going.

They worked at least short term. The group I was part of lasted from the seventies through to the nineties and maybe even into the zeros. Some of those congregations found through various initiatives a lease of life during those years and actually the level of lay leadership increased through those projects. The congregation I was closest associated closed shortly after its social outreach was taken from it. I suspect that if it had remained there may have been another decade of life in the congregation. In other words it worked, it slowed the rate of decline. There is one church (maybe two) in an area of Manchester where under merge and close there would be none.

Now the study was not academic, the ministers who were trying different things to see if they could halt decline were of course the innovative and go ahead ministers. You cannot sort out the quality of the minister from the experiment. It also gives a hint of what might be wrong with the current debate. If a successful minister is one who has a single pastoral charge may it not be that there is a tendency for ministers not to seek group positions if they can get a single pastorate?

Of course, the big problem is not that groups cause decline. The sort of grouping being talked about is what the Methodist have done for centuries and forgive me although Methodism is currently in decline, I would be very reluctant to describe it as that in the middle on 19th Century! So what to make of it.

The problem is that grouping that is often talked of is done without concern for the Ecclesiology of the tradition. The relationship between the minister and the congregation is not the a top-down relationship within the Reformed tradition. Ministers are NOT appointed by Bishops (like the Roman Catholics), General Assembly (like the Methodists)  nor by other ministers. They are appointed by the local Church. The local Church has normally been associated with the local congregation. There is however no reason why it should be a single congregation. Could not a local Church consist of a number of worshipping communities serving different  constituencies within a wider community? These constituencies could be defined by place, age, theology, worship style preference or missional service. The one thing they would need to agree on is an Ecclesial structure (or how they interact formally with each other)

A grouping of local congregations under a central-governing body is not something new within the Reformed tradition.  This is what seems to have happened with the Geneva Consistory. It needs to be noted the consistory did not belong to one congregation but to the whole of Geneva and had responsibility for discipline of ministers among other concerns.  It was however primarily made up of lay people with the chair being the senior minister and as far as I can tell no other ministerial representation. Ministers were given responsibility for specific congregations or missional work by the Consistory.

I do not think this will be popular with anyone, but I do think that it highlights what is theoretically missing in the current discussion. That is a coherent thinking on the relationship between congregation and minister. At present I see the talk of grouping and the resistance to it being a discussion about power. If the local congregation can retain the power to appoint a minister then the members understand their connection to the minister. If, however, groups are created with minister or synod appointing other ministers then we become a denomination ruled by ministers.  Unfortunately that model, I can see members deciding that the denomination has lost interest in them so there is no reason to belong.

The Positively Attentional Living

I have not written for ages on this blog. I simply have been too full with my thesis but something has started bugging me and I think it is time I put it up. I have been reading quite a few Puritan writers on or off over the last couple of years and I am beginning to unearth a spiritual practice I think has been lost. We know of the Roman Catholic practice of confession, with its effort to note the sins in one lives, confess them to a confessor and then through repentance move on from them. It is also known Puritans quite often went in for a detailed examination of their lives that echoed this. What has not been asked is how the Puritans understood it. The Puritans seem to have turned the emphasis around 180 degrees.

Lets start one step back. There are many sets of techniques for assuring oneself of ones salvation. You may have come across the sinners prayer, or the conversion testimony if you have had contact with Evangelicals. You might equally find people who are concerned that their belief system matches as closely as possibly that of orthodox Christianity. Equally the more sacramental can be concerned about receiving communion and baptism. I am not suggesting one of these is right and others wrong, they are all partial. That is they grasp part of the truth about Salvation but not the whole. What the Puritans had was another such technique. It relied on the classical Reformed doctrine of Sanctification. The idea being that this was the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the believers life. The close examination was therefore not to detect sin and repent of it, but to detect the activity of the Holy Spirit and thus to rejoice at this assurance of salvation and also to help it bear fruit.

Now there is a lot to be said for this as one of the techniques. Firstly it points people towards the positive in their lives rather than the negative. Concentrating on the positive gives people energy. Secondly it changes our perspective of sin. While sin is not to be welcomed, awareness of it and repentance are; as these are signs of the work of the Holy Spirit, convicting us and healing us. I am not sure how to put it into practicebut there does seem something good about watching for where the Holy Spirit is working in our lives and those around us.

Standards, we have got to have Standards

All right the title is jokey, the thing is the Reformed tradition has subordinate standards. Now don’t go looking in the Westminster Confession, or Belgic or the Statement of Nature, Faith and Order of the United Reformed Church for statements about Subordinate Standards, you won’t find any. The simple reason is this is self referential these are the subordinate standards. That means for all URCs that the principle Subordinate Standard for us is the Statement of Nature, Faith and Order of the United Reformed Church. So saying we don’t have standards is a bit stupid!

There is one thing every one should spot I have so far and will continue to do so, use the term Subordinate Standards. They are Subordinate to scripture. The Protestant shout of “Sola Scriptura” means that practically they never ever have been the final statement on the faith. Doctrine can and is Reformed in order to bring it better in line with Scripture. This is alive and kicking in Reformed Churches. I can remember being asked how a hymn of Kathy Galloways could get into Church of Scotland hymn book where it would struggle with its feminist images into an Anglican one. The answer was simple, the images Kathy used were Biblical, therefore the question was not “Are these images feminist?” but “Are these images Biblical?” and if they are then they trump all questions about whether things were feminist or not. Many Subordinate Statements say exactly that.

Secondly Subordinate Standards are about where the faith has been. Have a look at Reformed Presbytery of North America’s list and really go down them. You will find an odd bunch of documents. There are the standards such as: the Apostles Creed and the Westminster Confession, but then look what else is there like: Metrical Psalms and the Acts of General Assembly of the Church of Scotland betweeh specific dates! This does not look to me like a group trying to specify Doctrine it looks far more like a list of documents they tell where the group has come from. To ask who we are is nearly always to ask who we have been.

The picture I tend to come back to is of cairns, they normally come from places where the originating group for some reasons feels that it is a good idea to make a statement about how they see the faith. The reasons can be various; I am almost certain that the Congregationalists insisted on one when the URC was formed. They did not want any pesky Unitarians getting their hands on any property of the new united church and therefore having a statement was essential (the Unitarians won’t have a statement because that might meanthose troublesome Congregationalist getting their hands on the property). I think it is instructive that the requirement in the United Church of Canada to become a member is that you assent to belief in the Trinity (not the incarnation or ressurection) and this was insisted on by Congregationalists. The memories of fights in church history die hard. However it has to be said that fresh statements at the creation of a merged denomination are common. They equally occur at times of crisis, points of turmoil and not always theological, quite a few of them are political. However most of the time we plod along with those we have got and don’t pay much heed to getting new ones.

URC approach to “Substantial Agreement”

A while ago I drew two pictures of what we would mean if we required a ministers faith to be in substantial agreement with the subordinate standards. I suggested the URC’s approach was like the diagram shown here. I would suspect quite a overlap with the Basis of Union, maybe with quite a bit of agnosticism about parts of it, with other bits being inconcurrence with other Subordinate Standards which we accept. In other words the tradition is defined by having a broad scope with many overlapping subordinate standards and the requirement is that the faith falls mainly within those parameters. It does not mean that all ministers sign up to the same things exactly. Indeed although I have shown three here, there are at least another six named subordinate standards. I defy anyone to know them well enough that they can recall them at an instance and say what they agree and disagree with them let alone accept them all. Then there are the ones we don’t name but are included as “of the tradition” e.g. the Scots Confession. However what status is John Robinsons address to the Pilgrim Fathers at Plymouth.  You won’t find it on the internet, I might put it up at some stage if I get hold of it, but the paraphrase in the form of We limit not the Truth of God (ignore the tune) is widely sung in the URC and I have heard quoted in theological debate. There is thus a deliberate ambiguity.

Yes I use the subordinate standards, they have been an important vehicle of my initiation into Reformed Theology, but I do not use them in a sort of lets try to believe twenty impossible things before breakfast style. I usually read them through quite quickly the first time, to try to get a feel of them, what is important and how they stand. Then and this is an ongoing process I turn to bits I see as significant and try and work out why. It maybe I disagree with them, in which case I need to work out why, or it might be a phrase gives me cause for reflection, time to look deeper at other understandings. So Subordinate standards are there to say where we have been, not to determine who we are. Remember “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (George Sanayana) so we need methods of remembering where we have been and knowing why we have travelled to where we are.

Respect the Culture of the Internet

An incident still annoys me and it is probably ten years since it happened. I was studying Sociology and doing one of the how to courses, which had its bit on ethics and the need to anonymise. One guy did a bit on exploring internet culture and the thing that rankles is that he totally disregarded this advice, so much so I am sure I know and can get in touch with one of his informants.

He took a bit of conversation from a chat room. It was a short exchange between two people using nom de plumes. It looked to him as if people were using pen names and therefore he thought he did not need to anonymise. What is more the name was short and not a recognaisable name in any language. Surely this name was not a give-away. It is, it belongs to one specific person who has used it for the best part of twenty years or more. If I see that name anywhere on the internet I assume it is her who typed that. What is more the personna she portrays in the interaction is typical of her personna elsewhere where I do know her.

Lets go back to the beginning and to usenet boards and maybe even earlier. Names were limited, the maximum length was eight characters if you were lucky. So you could not have JohnSmith as your name. The challenge in those days was to find an eight letter code that was both memorable and not taken. Once found people tended to stick with it. In a very real sense they developed an ownership of that code. Towards the end of those days a six letters in a search engine would have got you most of my internet activity except work stuff (there it was five). Now you’d have to go down half a page to find something that relates to me as others use that code. However some have stuck with their name or code and some of those are very short.Therefore when people move from forum to forum you can look out for the same names and find the same people.

So despite what the social scientists like to think, the internet was never a lot of nameless geeks rampaging around having careless fun. The geeks from fairly early on established a culture that maintained identity across bulletin boards, message boards and discussion rooms. There was no policing except the more codes you used the more names and codes you had to do, sock puppetry (having multiple codes on a single discussion board, was looked down upon). In a stuation where discussion boards appeared and disappeared pretty frequently by doing so people often knew who they were talking to or at least knew what previous interaction they could recall.

Now with something like twenty years of being on the internet (alright so I was technically on one of its precursors in 1984 and I have very rarely been off since but using really started around 1992 with the present job). I can say that on the internet it is possible to fool everyone sometimes and some people all the time but it isn’t possible to fool everyone all the time. It is simply too much effort for most people to keep two or more different consistent personas going. They normally make one of two mistakes:

  1. The actually create two very similar personnas, and then some adminy type does the checking on the logs and all are revealled
  2. The go for the spectacular, with heightened stories or crusading for a particular perspective (Kierkegaard the first internet troll?). These draw attention, almost certainly as much suspicious attention as any others. Such people are either unmasked or are asked to leave as they are causing problems.

To do it successfully you must keep a low key, everyday persona who is distinct from yourself for long periods of time. Its not easy, imagine trying to write fiction that is as boring to yourself as paint drying and you get some idea of what they have to do. My suspicion is the vast majority of people who try that get bored. What is the point of being , clever if no-one knows about it and if anyone knows then your game is up and you are no longer clever.

So when you investigate social behaviour on the internet, please do not fall for the simplistic assumption that pen-names are anonymous. They may be or they may be the way that individual is most widely known.

From where does good self image come?

I am on holiday staying with close friends, last Sunday morning my friend applied for a job working with alcohol and drug abusers. Her reason for taking it rather than staying with a current job was partly pay, although it is even shorter term than her current one, partly status as it is ‘proper’ social work  although it is no more secure than her current job (both have short term contracts) and that means that her clients have to see her.

I challenged her on this, my dealings with addicts suggest that it takes lots of self discipline to stay off what you are addicted to. That it is a niggle that wears away at a person. She then made the comment that for most addicts accessing services meant they had to acknowledge their addiction and to do this was to undermine their already poor self esteem. This is wronger than a wrong thing that is mistaken (Erin:Ship-of-fools).

The thing is there are two things that build real self esteem in my book and the first has to come first. According to Jurgen Wolff, Brian Tracy when stuck in the desert with a friends and a broken down landrover, faced the first. That is if life is to be worthwhile, it is up to us to take responsibility for what is going on in it at the moment.  Not seek to blame but in the same way a treasurer is responsible for a clubs money. Circumstances can be someone-else’s fault and nearly always we are co-creators of them with others, but on the whole the finding of blame is pretty pointless. Rather the question that is useful is “What am I going to do about it?” Doing something to try and improve the situation, in Brian Tracy’s case help fix the Landrover, is the crucial step. It changes one from victim to active player. There is no guarantee of success but you have made failure less likely.

It is recorded that most addicts don’t believe they are addicted. They believe they can give it up at any time and because they never try they never fail at that! The fact that the addiction is controlling more and more of their lives is not taken into consideration. They will justify doing it, even telling themselves lies. I have seen it, it is not pretty. Keeping the addiction going becomes a method to avoid dealing with other things. It eventually becomes the overarching organising principle of their lives and in doing so it saps their self esteem. Until someone in this situation faces up to the fact that they are responsible for their lives including their addiction nothing will change. So much as my friend may like to spare them that step until they do, there is no future and there will be no growth in self esteem.

The second part is altogether pleasanter and that is to find a non-judgemental accountable community. This is difficult, I suspect that for at least the first few years the person needs daily contact with the community. That is asking a lot of any group of people.  It certainly isn’t a one off thing. I suspect that it is not accidental that where such communities have existed they have had religious overtones (from Alcoholics Anonymous “higher power” to Evangelical Christian missions in Russia). The real good news as far as alcoholics go, is that when they are going sober, they often are some of the best and most skilled people at doing this. I do not know whether this is the case for drug users. I do know that other groups such as writers groups and so forth can form a similar function for parts of a persons life.

I suspect that for a few individuals of exceptional character the second may not be necessary, but it certainly eases the struggle. Unfortunately if the second happens without the first you can well end up supporting someone’s self delusion. If that is addiction that could well make the situation worse.

Please note I am not saying addiction is solely a self-esteem issue, it isn’t. It has many other facets, not least of which is craving, which is almost certainly due to brain chemistry and is very unlike other desires in that it is very close to compulsive.

They say that Love is blind

It is a well known saying that “Love is blind” but I say that love is no more blind than I was born in England.

Let me put that in context, I am white British, I have pale skin, blue eyes, and brown hair with a reddish tint. I speak with an educated Northern English accent and I was educated in state school. In other words if you met me, you’d assume that was English born and bred. The fact is you would be wrong although English bred. I was born in East London South Africa. In other words first appearance are misleading.

So why do I think on first acquaintance love appears blind and yet on  closer inspection turns out to be clearer sighted than many more objective standards.

Firstly let me be clear, many things closely associated with love are blind, or blinding. Infatuation blinds one, sexual attraction often leads to one over looking faults and admiration can deceive both the admirer and the person admired, idolisation most definitely does. As far as love is mixed in with these there will always be some blindness.

However to the extent that this blindness is a matter of deliberately or by emotion overlooking something that is part and parcel of the beloved object, then it also fails as love, because there is that in the beloved that is not loved.

Love rather sees clearly. I have a friend, Stephen  who has problems with alcohol. Basically he is capable of not drinking, but once he starts drinking he cannot control it. There are reasons why being this way is difficult for him, he comes from a culture where drinking is part of socialising, it is the way he has always  relaxed and I suspect he does enjoy it to a certain extent. If you add in the idea common in today’s society that if you don’t drink you are a prude, you get a fairly clear picture what sort of a mess he easily gets himself into.

Now Stephen is fussy over his appearance, if there is one thing he is more fond of it is his job. He has a good degree, is affable and a genuine person. In other words for most of the time, he fools most of the people, who don’t think he has a problem. I actually was going out with Stephen when I first realised he had a problem, yes I got him home and safe after that incident. No we did not break up over that, but did a few weeks later at his request. I was becoming a distraction from drinking (he would hate me saying this but I suspect that is the truth).

Do I reject Stephen, no I don’t. Do I pretend he doesn’t have problems with alcohol? no that is not an option either. I do keep some space between us, and probably need to be stronger about that, but that is because we have split up and both of us need that space to get our heads sorted. What is clear is that being close to him, caring about him, far from hiding his problems with alcohol made me have to face up to them.

To some it might appear I am turning a blind eye to those problems. Particularly the weeks when he came around on a Friday night with a bottle of wine to share, and we talked about life, including his drinking patterns. At that stage both me and his doctor were in damage limitation mode. I suspect if I have refused to have a drink with him it would have set me up in a position where he would not have been honest with me about his struggles and as I was supporting him through them, it was a price I paid, and yes I did not enjoy that wine. I knew what I was doing, I knew in many books it was wrong and yet it seemed the only possible way forward.

That is the problem a person from love will often take action which appear to be “blind” when in fact they are very clear sighted. They know the risks and this seems to best path for them and the individual. Their love is not despite the bad things, but including the bad things. I do not like alcoholism, I have lost friends to it, I have seen decent people ruined and that someone I care for is going through it is painful. I will keep trying to help him fight against it, because each small victory is worth it because I care about him.

I struggle equally with being honest, I can’t support him, if he starts to presume our friendship is something other than it is. He can’t substitute me for the alcohol nor expect me to pick up the pieces every time. He has to take responsibility for himself. So there are boundaries on what I can do and in the end if the only way to be fair is to walk away I will but that does not stop me caring.

So at one level I see more clearly than others, on another at times I act in ways that to someone outside would assume I was blind to the reality. At its core love has the acceptance of who someone is for who they are.  It means risking being hurt, when you know there is high chance you will be hurt.

Therefore in some ways I see God’s love shown more in the resurrection than in the crucifixion. In the crucifixion God faces the worst reality of what humanity is; in the resurrection he comes back to stay in relationship with us. No doubt he could have walked away, gone and sat up in heaven away from all the mess that we are making here. He did not, he came back and dwelt once again amongst us.

Regression towards the mean, the scientific publishing culture and the lack of repeatability

A recent exchange on twitter the Thesiswhisperer wondered about why effects were disappearing as mentioned in this New York Times article. The feeling is this should not happen with the modern scientific culture, and yet I suspect modern academic scientific culture is partly to blame. To explain why I have to introduce a little known but rather simple statistical fact which may be called Regression towards the mean.

Let me do it by given a common example used in teaching regression towards the mean. The lecturer tells a class that he has the ability to improve people psychic ability. He then writes on a piece of paper a number between 1 and 100 without showing the class. He then asks the class to write down what they think the number is. He then reveals the number and asks to class to tell him how well they did.

Now the experiment starts. He takes a sample from the class of people who got furthest from his value, say the worst half. He points out these are obviously the less psychic to show the effect. With these he performs some ritual, perhaps to stand up turn round three times and say “esn-esn-on” (“nonsense” backwards).

Then he repeats the experiment but this time with only this worst half and low and behold, they perform better. That is there average guess is closer to his value than they were in the previous study.

The lecturer then admits there is no psychic ability involved in this, so what is going on. The trick is in the selection. Indeed if he looked at the Standard deviation for the whole class at the start and the standard deviation for the sample in the second they should be of approximately the same size. People are pretty randomly choosing their number, those who guess badly at first do that pretty randomly and actually if he had taken the full class the performance would have been much the same as before, only the ones who did better would have differed.

Regression to the mean basically means that if there is a selection bias in a distribution as fresh data is produced this will tend to go back towards the mean.

So what has this to do with non-repeatability. For starters I am not belittling this phenomena I have been involved in studies which aimed to replicate a previously carried out study. The prior study reported a huge effect so the power calculation required a small sample size, indeed so small we upped the numbers just to persuade the ethics committee that this was a genuine attempt to replicate. This only to find when we have the data collected that there is no effect visible in the data. So I have experienced non-repeatability.
Nor am I accusing researchers of bad practice. They are honestly reporting the results they get. It is the ability to report the results, i.e. the selection process by journals that produces the phenomena!

Published results and accepted results aren’t just a random sample of all results. They are selected for the results that demonstrate a genuine effect. They particularly like those results that are significant at p=.05 level. However gaining a p-value of less than .05 (or any value) is no guarantee that you have a true effect. For a start off with p=.05, one in twenty of results where there is genuinely no effect get reported as having an effect. Now that isn’t one in twenty of reported results (it might be lots higher or lower) but one in twenty of results where there is NOTHING is genuinely happening. Unfortunately we don’t know where these one in twenty are. It looks like a result even though it there isn’t an effect. We know there are type 1 error, our selection for criteria for publication reports allows one in twenty papers through where there is genuinely no effect.

But what if there is an effect? Well we are more likely to detect it if our sample happens to over-estimate the effect than if it under estimates the effect. In other words there are studies out there where there was a genuine effect but it did not get published because they drew a sample that performed badly. On the other hand on well designed experiments all the studies that draw fortunate samples are likely to significant. So the tendency is to over estimate actual effects because the selection criteria for publication favours those who draw fortunate samples.

This is not news, I have not suddenly found this inspiration, look there are learned reviews exploring this very topic. There are approaches when results start behaving in this way, one is to look at the sample size it would take to detect a difference between the original results and the fresh results, and if that is larger than the two studies then it may well be just the result of regression to the mean. It is also why clinicians are moving towards Meta Analysis rather than the results from just one study, but meta-analysis itself is hampered by the publishing bias.

I also want to sound a warning, skewed data (data where a few people produce very high scores) can quite easily produce odd ball results. This causes problems when sampling, there are statistical methods for analysing this but I have rarely seen them applied out side the statistical class room.

So yes I would expect the published results of effects on the whole to be over-estimates. The over-estimation is a product of the current scientific publishing culture. There are some approaches to alleviate this problem but at present no cure because the cure involves a change of culture.

Who made the Blind Watch Maker

I have decided that it is time that someone did this. I am not the best creative writer out there, nor am I an evolutionary biologist, but for at least the last twenty years the following has been begging to be written.

Firstly let my say honestly in my opinion evolution is elegant. It is an elegant solution to how to maximise the life sustained in an eco-system. Its elegance is that of a good mathematics solution. Mathematics has its own aesthetics, the modern computer solutions which take hours of computing power and involve going through every possible permutation are ugly. The neat classical proof of something in a dozen lines from first principles is elegant. The problem with the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem is that it is ugly and we suspect that what Fermat actually had was a very elegant proof although bigger than the margin. So proven but Fermat’s proof is not found and some mathematicians will go on looking for that proof. Mathematicians suspect that such proof if it exists probably takes less than a hundred pages and would probably open up whole new areas of mathematics.

So then I am using “elegant” in this sense when I am talking of evolution. You might suspect with the diversity that occurs evolution was actually quite complex but it does not seem to be. There seems to be two principles:

  1. Given that only some of the creatures manage to pass their pattern to the next generation
  2. There is a process by which genes within animals are able to mutate and change within a generation.

Given these two you have an evolutionary process. These two fairly simple processes are what drives the whole of evolution on this planet and produces the vast variety of life that exists here. That too me seems to be extremely elegant.

However there is also something peculiar, the processes have to be carefully tuned. It must not be that all creature patterns pass onto the next generation. This would mean no space for adaptation, over population or we would live in a static universe. For some reason this universe does not seem to like static stasis only dynamic stasis.

Secondly the rate of mutation must be controlled. Too fast and you would never get species, too slow and life would die out when something changes. The pace of change has to be right.

In other words to get the abundant variety of life there is no earth the parameters have had to be tuned fairly precisely, as precisely as any mechanical device.

I therefore put to Mr Dawkins and his ilk that the creation from design can be written not from some marvel from evolution such as the human eye but from the process of evolution itself. Precisely understood evolution is an elegant, finely tuned process that has all the hall marks of designer as much if not more so than any marvel it has produced.

Now I don’t personally buy the argument from design, I am afraid I go with Hume and acknowledge that showing elegance and fine tuning is not enough but that you must also show purpose and honestly the best guesses at purpose are just that guesses, however much they are dressed up in religious language.

What I do want to do, is make people aware of what the classical idea of creation within Christian theology is. The first thing is to be aware that God’s pan-time existence is very different from human. If we experience life as a viewer in the movie theatre, God experiences it far more as the director at the cutting table. It is of course wrong, we interact with the movie and for God there is never any scene which does not have his attention. It seem natural then that God can be as much responsible for the processes by which we see the universe is created, as he can be for creating elements within it. In the end these processes are only other elements.

My stance on depression

I picked up a friend on Facebook which says:

“Depression is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign that you have been trying to be strong for too long. Put this as your status if you know someone who has or has had depression. Will you do it, and leave it on your status for at least an hour? Most people won’t, but 1 in 3 of us will suffer at some point in our lives. Show your support. I copied and pasted, will you?”

Now I have toyed with taking up the challenge and putting it on my perspective but have not for two reasons.

  1. It is manipulative trying to get people to support this statement about depression. I don’t like chain messages, I think they are almost as bad a chain mail
  2. It is factually in accurate, Depression is common but one in three is not even featured in Mind’s estimates for Mental Distress. The worst being 1 in 4 and that covers all mental health cases even those with such mild distress they don’t go to the doctor. Secondly being strong too long is not the sole cause of depression. Just like falling out of trees is not the sole cause of broken legs. For some it no doubt is, for others it can be a whole host of things.

So where do I stand.

Firstly I suffer from Mental Health Distress, I am/have been on anti-depressants for more than five years, treating mild to moderate depression, I also take medication for an anxiety complaint. However if you met me you would not pick this up very easily. Some of this is helped by the fact mine takes the “smiling” form indeed I smile more when on anti-depressants than off them. However it leaves me with a lot of very physical symptoms. I get tired very easily, need a lot of time alone, suffer from migraines and get other painful symptoms (yes that is physical not emotional pain). When I was bad I lost the ability to concentrate for more than a few seconds (I took to reading books with a rule basically so I knew which line I was on) and became very un-proactive (it is very hard to get the energy for anything if you feel totally exhausted all the time). I do a lot despite this partially because the anxiety stays better under control if I am busy, partly because boredom is a good way of triggering depression symptoms for me and partly that is who I am.

I am telling this not simply to state my credentials but also so you realise that the form my mental health distress is unusual. There are many people out there with far more common forms of depression.  For many overwhelming sense of sadness is a major feature. Just because I am up and doing things (well I am either that or curled in a small ball in my bed) does not mean other people even with similar diagnoses are able to be up and doing things. Depression does not come in only one flavour.

Also what I have experienced is relatively mild, there are lots more serious forms out there. I have no special right to insight by virtue of this experience, there are forms that although I try to empathise with I do not really experience. I have little tendency towards either substance abuse (including alcohol) and self harm for starter. Both of these symptoms are experienced by a significant number of people who are suffering from mental health distress. In some cases I suspect they are attempts to relieve emotional pain rather than symptoms.

Equally there is no single cause of mental health issues. Yes some of mine is hereditary, some is due to poor life choices and some is due to life events over which I had little or no control. I suspect I am not the only person to have multiple causes. Other people may have theirs ‘created’ by long term abuse, or dealing with tragedy close at hand or even other disability or physical illness. There are no doubt other contributing causes. Stress plays a role as does unexpressed anger but they are not the sole cause.

What perhaps characterises many mental illnesses more than anything else is that thought patterns differ markedly from the healthy.  In mild forms these can almost be intangible to those around a person, perhaps a tendency to be slightly more pessimistic or worried over things but not much else. Quite often what people don’t realise is that the individual is making a huge effort to function normally. As it trips into moderate, the person still has an understanding of what normal is, but they are not able to make the effort to function in that way and inevitably display more ill behaviours. In my experience people really strive long and hard to retain some connection with normal thought patterns. However with severe the person actually has lost connection at all with normal thought patterns. What is also true is the vast percentage of people suffering from mental distress are in the mild category, the headline grabbing categories are in the severe. The services are such that there is little or no help available for people who are mild. It is not good for even the severe. Yes that means the vast majority of such people struggle on with the help of friends and family.

However to say that it is a characteristic of mental illness to have dysfunctional thought patterns is not to say that it is not physical, it is markedly physical in a variety of ways. Many people who have mental health problems will manifest physical symptoms, I already mentioned I suffer pain, but in set circumstances it can also cause me to vomit or to shake like a leaf. Just because a symptoms origin is in the brain does not stop it being distressing for the individual who is going through it. Nobody likes eating a meal then heaving it all back.Especially if you are out celebrating with friends.What is more physical treatments work, sometimes these can be as simple as mineral supplements, exercise and such.Even things like massage and aroma therapy have brought some relief to some.  Other times they are complex drug regimes.There is no barrier between the mental and the physical.

Talk therapies can work and are useful. The success of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and associated therapies is to be welcomed. They are not a cure all, but they are a major step forward and at the very least make people suffering from mental distress more skillful at keeping contact with normality.

So what as someone undergoing mental distress do I want. Well firstly don’t define me as that, I do lots of other things and the more you help me hold onto those other things the more you help me function normally. Secondly when I can’t do something or my behaviour becomes odd don’t assume it is about you, its more often me trying to cope with my illness. I like many others am actually quite skilled at dealing with my illness, I can and do manage it, sometimes trusting me to manage and ask when I need help is the most constructive thing you can do. It is amazing how often people’s need to help means that I have to manage that on top of my illness. For those who want some idea of how draining this is, please read this article on spoon theory, and understand that if I am having to tell you how to help I am using my spoons to do that. Finally oddly if I start withdrawing, please try an make the effort to keep low level contact. What it normally means is that I am personally not able to sustain the contact in the form at the time, if you can take the effort out of doing it, then I probably will appreciate it. There is a gap between when I can make the effort to keep in contact and when I am no longer able to sustain contact.In that gap gentle contact is likely to sustain me rather than allow me to fall further. I know I am usually the proactive one.

On a more general note, you do know someone who has suffered mental health distress, but they may not be willing to be open about this.Try therefore when someone is behaving differently not to jump to conclusions and certainly don’t jump to conclusion because you hear someone has a mental health diagnosis. We remain individuals in our illnesses. More importantly if you have the opportunity please try and find out more about mental health issues, you never know it may be you that needs the knowledge next.

The Discipline of Joy

This is a response to Chapter four in John Ortberg’s book “The Life you have Always Wanted“. He does not say that Christian’s should be happy and smiley all the time. That is bad theology but he does suggest we should practice joy but then does not tell us what joy is.

I am going to suggest that what he means be joy is those practices that lead to celebration and I therefore think that a two fold approach is needed

Stage one is a practice which is very close to Buddhist mindfulness, the only difference being that it tends to seek out pleasant experiences rather than just taking any experience. That is when something good happens you take the time to actually experience it, enjoy it, savour it, appreciate it, there is not a good verb in English. John suggests spending a whole day doing this each week. That I would not think possible in modern life, too many commitments but it is possible to have the occasional spoil yourself day and/or to try and have five minutes when you just let yourself savour what you are experience. It might be the warm blankets over you as you lie down to go to sleep. Just feel their weight and the warmth reflecting back from your body. What I find really good for doing this is to write poems. Most of mine start with me just trying to capture some experience in words. I have to experience it first before I can find the words.

Stage two is complimentary and that is to practice gratitude. No I do not mean the idea of thanking God for the cut knee. I mean when you come aware of something as given, whether from God or from another human being, just acknowledging that. It takes all of two seconds to do. Somebody opens a door for you and you say “thanks”, a person serves you in a shop and you say “thanks” even a driver lets you into a flow of traffic and you wave your hand. It makes you aware of how many things you receive each day. Then there are things that are not due to any other human but are not under your control either: it not raining on a wet day when you leave your brolly at home, the flavour of blackberries picked while out walking, having the health you have or a good family and friends even a nuch needed parking space. To acknowledge that much of life is given and as a Christian I see it as given by God so it is natural to thank him.

The thing is that together the two work together to provide a motor out of which celebration naturally happens. A life savouring the generosity of God, can there really be a better basis for joy.

That is not to say nasty things don’t happen they do and it is totally right to be cross when they do but a discipline like this helps so that nasty things don’t overwhelm us. It provides hope in times when hope otherwise seems far away. Sometimes all we can do is savour the pain and offer that to God but God takes even that.