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.

Graduate Tax

Is it just me but I assumed that graduate tax would be a on all graduates. Indeed the only ones who should be let off (and maybe be able to claim their loans back during the first decade) are the ones who went in the last twenty years and had to pay fees. The rest, self included have absolutely no excuse not to pay the graduate tax. People like me, got not just our undergraduate tuition at tax payers expense but also a grant to live off and then a second round of this for a second degree albeit only for a single year.

Alright so we have not planned for the tax, but then we are nearly all in better paying jobs and more settled than those just out of University i.e. we are better able to pay the tax..

If the don’t feel they can do this, then there should be a grad tax as well as current fees rather than increasing current fees

Jengie

Why so few free church liturgists attend SLS conference

Right this is the first of two short pieces in spired by attending this conference. I was the only URC person there, although there were a couple of Methodists, a solitary Pentecostalist and an American Reformed Pastor. Apart from that everyone was either high church Anglican or Roman Catholic. At one point someone said that they wished that more “Free Church liturgical theologians would come as those that do are interesting.” Well here is my reason why such people don’t come.

Firstly the discourse of the conference is totally against them coming. They define themselves as “liturgical” and free churches as “non-liturgical”. Now why would someone defined by a liturgical conference as “non-liturgical” come to it? They are wanting Non-liturgical liturgical theologians to attend. Sorry that is like asking for hot cold water or is oxymoronic. If they want free church liturgists and liturgical theologians they need to make a space for them.

Secondly our liturgists and liturgical theologians are very different from theirs. The prime task of them is to write the liturgy and they do it week in and week out. They are not primarily critics of liturgy and by that I mean those who bring their mental faculties to the task of analysing how liturgy is produced. They are primarily artisans producing liturgy week in week out. It would never occur to them that you might invite in later a poet, or musician to the creation of liturgy as if there is some secondary function they could add. The skills they bring are part and parcel of the task of creating liturgy.

Let me outline what skill a great liturgists needs in free church tradition:

  • The poets sense of words
  • The dramatists sense of flow and drama, and the liturgy as something performed
  • The musicians sense of the role of music
  • The theologians knowledge of doctrine
  • A religious sense of the pattern and shape of prayer through life
  • A sating in the Biblical text, sometimes seen with elderly Presbyterians with the Psalms where not only can they summon verses to memory at will, but their language is shaped by it.
  • A biblical scholars sensitivity to the meaning and interpretations of the text.
  • A Sociologists awareness of how people participate and comprehend the liturgy and the role it plays in religious formation.
  • A critques understanding of the tradition of liturgy

At the moment only about four of these functions are acknowledged in the conference. Where were the workshops where people brought examples of their own work and worked on improving it? Where were the discussions on what people understood of the liturgy and took with them? Where was the collection of folk liturgy, the prayers of the everyday people? If the Society for Liturical Studies, wants to include those from the Free churches in England it is going to have to make a space and begin to understand that valuable though the historical and critical study of Liturgy is, it is not the sole concern of an active working liturgist, at least not when there is Sundays Worship to prepare and you cannot just pick up the book and read it.

Inward is the direction of Christmas

And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. Luke 2:3-5 (English Standard Version)

 It seems that in this season of Goodwill towards all people there is a deliberate process of withdrawal from people that slowly goes on through Advent. We like Joseph in the passage above end up going back to our home town and family.

The first stage around the start of Advent, early December is the card sending. This is about as close as many of us get to wishing universal goodwill. We send cards to people we know, regardless of whether we have spoken to them, phoned them or been in contact through email or just plain sent a letter. All that matters is that last year they sent you a card, or that you are hoping they will send you one this year. Sending out several hundred Christmas cards is not unknown even in the days before the internet.

Next stage the office party, the Christmas drinks with friends and those you regularly see. Or just wishing people you see a happy Christmas, particularly as it can be quite a busy time  and you end up seeing people you have not seen for a while. Included here is the church carol service, the crib service, the Cristingle service and all the other special services that happen this time of year. Basically the time you spend with people around you.

As you get closer to Christmas you start giving and receiving presents. This diminishes the circle even further, these are people who are special, people who feel close too or people with who you want to share with at this time of year. You are now getting to the people who matter to you.

Finally Christmas arrives and we all go home to our families. At least that is what is supposed to happen and people will travel a long way to be home with their family at Christmas. You are not even really relating to your close friends. Christmas itself is heavily weighted towards spending time with your family and by family people mean blood relatives.

You slowly have been drawing in the only level left is the self.

It really needs some cultural rethinking of Christmas if we are to stop the crises, the rows, the bad practices that mark this time of the year. We have slowly made a focus for the event and the focus is not the Christ child but the individual.

The people who are really being countercultural are those who go an help in the Christmas Shelters, the ones who decide on this date to have some friends around for a meal and the people who open their homes to those beyond their immediate family circle. These people are rebuilding Christmas, they are the light bearers, that give me hope that sometime there will be a celebration of Christmas when there really will be good will towards all people rather than a stress laid on the immediate family and the individual that it cannot really bare.

Becoming a member of a congregation

Very few people wake up one Sunday morning and decide lets go to church today out of the blue. Even fewer then decide on a random congregation within ten miles of their home for that intial visit to a congregation, and very few decide at the first time of going that this is where they are going to settle. I am stating this as it is something we all really know but it is amazing how many congregations behave as if this is how people should behave.

What I want to do is to try and to get people first to re-imagine the way a person comes into membership.

I would suggest that there are two initial ways that a person may come into contact with a congregation. One is through a cultivated presence of the congregation, this covers everything from church noticeboards through social outreach to overt evangelism. What it does is make people think “Oh there is a church there!” The second thing is that the people either meet somebody or become aware that somebody they already know goes to that church. This tells them that “people like us go there”. Having been a church member I know there is nothing special about church members, but to the outsider I suspect they often feel like people from another planet. So for a person to consider going to a congregation they have to know something about the congregation and know somebody who belongs to the congregation.

There is however a third thing and that is there must be something that makes them think that Christianity is something they want to investigate or be involved in. If you want religious language some nudging of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes that can simply be the feeling that those people who go there are nice people to know I would like to get to know them better but for the most part, people who decide to come through the doors on a Sunday to worship will have some idea that Christianity maybe for them. It maybe that there needs to be a social life to the church that gives a space where people who do not yet have this inkling that Christianity may be for them but who value the friendships they are developing with members of the congregation.

Of course the Holy Spirit can and does use members, there possibly also needs to be encouragement for people to share about their faith with this group. Now I do not mean that members need sermons telling them they must share their faith or else, but that there needs to be some sort of reward for people who do share about their faith. Now I am not sure how this is built in, the old evangelical practice of testimony, at its best gave people a space to try this out that was relatively non-threatening, i.e. the congregation are hardly going to be put out because you talk about God, and often brought rewards in their standing with the congregation. Some congregations might find it useful to have something to give someone and others may find that perhaps faith sharing groups might be useful as a place to share ones faith and to learn to share with others. Actually a good one, is to develop the practice of speaking of the times you see someone else sharing their faith.

Then comes the actual day the person decides, there are going to be reasons why they choose your congregation and the reasons are not probably going to be the ones you’d theoretically liked. They liked a Sunday lie in and your service was the one that allowed them that, or the opposite effect, that your service was early enough that it did not mean that the whole of Sunday morning wasn’t spent at church. It could be that a member is prepared to meet them and walk in with them, or even that they felt that so many people went to your congregation they would not be conspicious. 

However thats just the first week. This is when a welcome matters and that people are given the tools not to feel that they stand out like a sore thumb amongst the regulars.  Sometimes that might mean someone to explain the service to them, sometimes that might mean the quality of the greeting and sometimes that actually might mean that they don’t want any attention at all.

Often people then think the journey is over.  They have a new member but there are a lot of people who will drop out of church going at this point on. What you need is a culture that openly looks to integrate people into the congregation. That gives positive messages not just to the people who come in, but also to the congregation about the people who come in. How many churches could tell you how many attendees have started coming regularly in the last six months unless it is none? Do you make a point of noticing that a person has stopped being an occasional visitor and has started becoming regular. Do you know if such a person is someone who has had previous connections with the Christian faith (maybe someone whose active involvement with a congregation has lapsed but now wants to take on a new commitment) or is looking at it for the first time? How do you celebrate their coming in as part of the fellowship? How do you make sure they are visible to long term members and welcomed? I am not suggesting at this point particularly that they need to come into membership, but it is time they went on the adherents role! and that in itself is worth celebrating.

Then from there to church membership! Again positive work both on involving and educating them into the ways of the congregation. Time to them to evaluate properly whether they do want to belong and time for them to think about what it means to belong.

If a person has been attending regularly for two years then the question really needs to change as to why they are not member and there are legitimate reasons why not. However do congregation even know when someone has been attending for two years or does it all go unnoticed?

I hope what I have outlined is a process that is lot more complex than what is normally supposed. I also hope I have made clear that this process needs a lot more than just straight evangelistic technique, that both the congregation and the individual need to work at making this a path that is celebrated and seen as bringing rewards. Congregations are quick to seize on either the difficulties of new people, who don’t do things the way they always have been done, aren’t as reliable, meaning haven’t been attending for as long or perhaps are demanding meaning needing care and attention. If they do recognise people then it is more likely to be as somebody who helps us keep things going rather than an individual who will enrich the life of the congregation.

The challenge is to make it possible for people to assemble a route into a congregation and when they appear to be doing so, to create ways to support them in so doing.