Renew Your Mind

Renew Your Mind
Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Romans 12:2

Friday, May 5, 2017

TED Talks- a compelling liturgy for our times

If you took a straw poll of educated, professional people- perhaps those you work with, your Facebook friends, or the coffee queue at Starbucks- what might be the last talk that they listened to? Those who are regular church attenders might say last Sunday’s sermon, but probably the majority would mention a TED talk.

TED talks have become a modern phenomenon. Speakers such as Amy Cuddy on body language, Simon Sinek on great leaders or BrenĂ© Brown on vulnerability have been watched by millions of people, and have become well-known names. It is easier to listen to a talk online for 20 minutes than to read a book. (Although watching a TED talk may lead to reading the book later.) It’s also more compelling watching and listening to a speaker. The quality of the presentations is high- the slickness of the technology enables the speaker to use a style that persuades us that this is informal and even personal- even though we know we are watching online! 

Should we applaud the fact that more and more people are making time to listen to some of the world’s best thinkers? TED is intentional in allowing all genders, races and backgrounds a platform, and the speakers usually come with impressively academic accreditation for their ideas. So what is there to worry about?

James K. A. Smith writes in his book “You Are What You Love- The Spiritual Power of Habit” about how we can unconsciously acquire dispositions and habits by regularly repeating particular routines and practices. He names these as secular liturgies, and asks that we begin to become more conscious of when and where these cultural liturgies might be influencing our thought and behaviour.

If you think of love-shaping practices as “liturgies”, this means you could be worshipping other gods without even knowing it. That’s because such cultural liturgies are not just one-off events that you unwittingly do; more significantly, they are formative practices that do something to you, unconsciously but effectively tuning your heart to the songs of Babylon rather than the songs of Zion (Psalm 137). Some cultural practices will be effectively training your loves, automating a kind of orientation to the world that seeps into your unconscious ways of being. (page 37- Learning to Read ‘Secular’ Liturgies)

How might watching TED talks be orientating the listener to the world, in opposition to the vision of human flourishing presented in God’s word? Here are some of my thoughts on how regularly watching TED talks might be retraining your heart….

  1.           I am in control of what I watch. I choose the subject that interests me, and I have the freedom to stop watching at any point. I don’t have to watch talks that I find disagreeable or challenging. There are thousands to choose from, so I can select those I find most entertaining and interesting.
  2.        The content of a talk is usually authenticated by the speaker’s academic credentials- which University do they lecture at, where did they do their research etc. Academia becomes the arbiter of truth.
  3.       The speakers are dynamic, engaging, often attractive and skilled presenters. Because of their skill, I don’t notice it and assume I am being convinced by the message rather than the presentation.
  4.       The most popular talks are self-help…they promise greater understanding of who I am and why I behave in the way that I do, with the goal of making me more successful in my relationships and career. The implied message is, If you do as I say, you could become as successful as me.

 I have watched many TED talks myself, and used them as a resource for students I teach. I think they are a great way into understanding someone’s ideas. But I do think that Smith is right to sound a note of warning, especially as we consider that many of those we live and work with do not have the regular practice of sitting under the authority of Scripture every Sunday, but instead are practising a different liturgy.

Perhaps we can learn from Paul, who visited Athens and was distressed to see that the city was full of idols. However, rather than berating the citizens of Athens for their idolatry, he took the opportunity to ask them what they were really searching for.

“Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him- though indeed he is not far from each one of us.”

Acts 17: 22-27

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Philip Larkin and The Good Wife- how to choose your words

Larkin’s poem “Talking in Bed” ends with these lines…

It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.

I’m not sure whether this observation is sad, or maybe the best we can hope for? Is it perhaps better than the alternative- words that are untrue and unkind? In the TV world of American public life, portrayed by series such as The Good Wife, characters spend most of their time speaking words which are neither true nor kind. We are led to believe that public discourse, whether in the media, politics or the law, is all about power, manipulation and revenge. The last thing anyone seems interested in is whether the words are true- until the lies become personal and hurtful, of course. Perhaps the compromise Larkin suggests is better than this- can we at least agree to speak to one another in a way that is “not untrue and not unkind”?

Yet God expects more than this of His children. We are to seek truth and kindness…and then to speak of them, particularly in our relationships with others. Paul writes to the Philippians :

For the rest, my dear family, these are the things you should think through: whatever is true, whatever is holy, whatever is upright, whatever is pure, whatever is attractive, whatever has a good reputation; anything virtuous, anything praiseworthy. And these are the things you should do: what you learned, received, heard and saw in and through me.
Philippians 4: 8,9

Spend some time listening to how those around you speak. Where on the spectrum of true/kind…not untrue/not unkind…untrue/unkind do their words fall?

Is it right to challenge the untruth and unkindness? How would it be best to do this? Is this what Jesus meant when he called us to be light and salt to a dark and decaying world?

Sunday, April 16, 2017

He is Risen! Alleluia!

Jesus spoke these words to Martha, at a time when she was angry and upset, grieving the death of her brother and feeling let down by Jesus, not understanding why he had not been there when she needed him. These were words of Hope- for Jesus, they were truth, he was explaining his mission to bring life. But for Martha, she heard these words in the midst of death. She did not know that Jesus was about to raise her brother from the dead, or indeed that Easter was coming...

Easter tells the story of Hope- however hard things seem in our day to day walk, however many times we feel we struggle and fail, however often the idea of character perfection seems out of reach, the battle has been won- we don't have to fight it all over again. 

Enjoy the victory that Jesus has won for those who love him!

Friday, April 14, 2017

Holy Week 5- Good Friday

Darkness drops
Like a stone.
Day, interrupted
Hold your breath-
Here God meets death.

Son, separated
From the Father.
Torn apart
From light,
From love,
From life.
Journey's unexpected end.....

It is finished.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Holy Week 4- Maundy Thursday

What does it mean to be truly human? What is the best that we can be? How can we be our most authentic selves? Perhaps it is in the last few days that Jesus, the Son of Man, spent on earth that we catch some glimpses of humanity at its best.

Paul reminds us that Jesus certainly was truly human- he had forsaken all divine privileges and submitted to the limitations of human flesh.

Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death-
even death on a cross.
Philippians 2: 6-8

Being truly human is not dependent on status, position, physical ability or achievements. The opposite seems to be true- we read here of emptiness, humility, obedience and eventually death. This seems extreme, counter-intuitive, and certainly against the grain of contemporary thinking......but then we remember the sacrifice of PC Keith Palmer, whose death in the line of duty we considered the day after the Westminster attack. His funeral was on Monday of this week, attended by thousands of his fellow officers.

We might think too of the thrill of watching a top class athlete compete, at the peak of his or her physical ability- and compare this with the courage, determination and achievement shown by paralympic athletes and the success of events such as the Invictus Games.

Our humanity shows through who we are on the inside, rather than through our external circumstances. It is, in the last account, our character that determines who we are. The project of cultivating character is not one that will end with Lent, but the task of a lifetime- becoming day by day, decision by decision, through failure and through success a person of courage, integrity, kindness, patience, wisdom, gentleness, peace, joy and love. If all else is taken from us- as it was with Our Lord- what will remain?

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Holy Week 3-The Challenge of the Cross

Christmas is really for the children

Christmas is really
for the children.
Especially for children
who like animals, stables,
stars and babies wrapped
in swaddling clothes.
Then there are wise men,
kings in fine robes,
humble shepherds and a
hint of rich perfume.
Easter is not really
for the children
unless accompanied by
a cream filled egg.
It has whips, blood, nails,
a spear and allegations
of body snatching.
It involves politics, God
and the sins of the world.
It is not good for people
of a nervous disposition.
They would do better to
think on rabbits, chickens
and the first snowdrop
of spring.

Or they’d do better to
wait for a re-run of
Christmas without asking
too many questions about
what Jesus did when he grew up
or whether there’s any connection.
Steve Turner
Easter and the events surrounding it are awkward- difficult to package and market commercially, as Steve Turner points out. It's a time of year when most people are happy to enjoy the benefits of a holiday, without asking too many questions about what its all about.
The Cross is only really acceptable if it's outside a church- no-one wants to be reminded of gruesome military torture techniques. It's such an uncompromising shape, stark and angular, speaking in its very shape of a choice to be made- do you engage with what it represents, or turn your back on it? Do you hide how uncomfortable it makes you feel by arguing political correctness- no burqas, turbans or crosses thank-you? Religion is all very well if it is kept private, it is not doing anyone any harm, but when it invades public space it often provokes strong reactions. That should not surprise us, since it's exactly what happened during Holy Week. Jesus' words, actions and presence were having a greater and greater effect, and as he entered Jerusalem, the centre of public life, the challenge he presented intensified. Then, as now, those who saw themselves as wise, powerful and intelligent were affronted by a message which called into question the basis of their certainties.
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:
‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
    the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’
 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 

 but we preach Christ crucified: 

a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Holy Week 2- challenge reveals character

T-CUP, or Thinking Clearly Under Pressure, was the acronym used by Sir Clive Woodward when he was the coach of the British Rugby team. Read more about TCUP here

We have seen that cultivating character is slow, patient work that can take a lifetime, and sometimes the results of that steady cultivation are not obvious until we face a challenge.

Surely the events of Holy Week presented the greatest challenge so far for the followers of Jesus. We saw at the weekend that Peter was not ready for this challenge, and when it came to a test of his character he buckled under the pressure. Earlier that evening, Judas had made a decision that revealed his true character. While the other disciples shared the Last Supper with their Lord, Judas slipped out to arrange to betray him to the chief priests and elders. Under the slowly mounting pressure of competing ideologies, Judas saw only weakness and disappointment in what Jesus seemed to be offering, and chose instead a way that appeared to promise success, clarity and good sense.

As the opposition to Jesus mounted, we see his disciples ill-equipped to face the challenges surrounding them. What hope does this give us, who can identify only too easily with these frightened, confused men?

Maybe the answer is in remembering that these events were before Easter- the resurrection was still to come, when the same power that raised Jesus from the dead was poured out at Pentecost on his followers.

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.
Ephesians 1: 17-21

Judas and Peter give us two alternatives for what can happen to our character when it is tried and found wanting. Judas, when he realised his mistake, could not see beyond it. He could not imagine a future for himself, and tragically killed himself. Peter, on the other hand, kept going. He too faced his own failure, but he knew enough about Jesus to hope that restoration and forgiveness was possible, and we know that at Pentecost, Peter shows that his character has not only survived his failure but grown stronger.