Brainiacs

Two brainy books for you to think about. Please don’t get the idea that I have slammed through these in a week so that I can bring you full and balanced reviews on them all. I haven’t. I have been reading these on and off for a few weeks now and they do take a bit more effort than your Agatha Christie (not that Agatha Christie isn’t beautifully written and constructed but her stuff is a bit more of a page-turner). I have been challenged/convicted (do we say convicted anymore?) by my lack of attention span so I thought I might pep it up a bit and learn something useful at the same time.

Here are two books on Covid 19. (First thing that I learnt – there are lots of Coronaviruses – this particular one is called Covid-19. You are welcome). Has anyone come up to you in the last six months and said: “Where is God when this is happening?” “Why is this happening?” Have they? Really? I think you must have more of a deeply spiritual profile among your friends and the neighbours then. No one has asked me anything of the sort. There are two main approaches to this as far as I can see. One is that Covid is a scientific anomaly – just one of those things, just one of those crazy flings and we have to get on with it. The second is that we have messed about with the world so much either through environmental misuse, our treatment of animals and the natural world included or that we have behaved like money-grabbing baboons with little or no moral compass and this is what you get. You know, if we were all shaking our fist at God and shouting “Whyyyyyyy?” he could probably unravel a list as long as his mighty arm to justify why he decided to give us a bit of a kicking – if that is what he had decided to do. (Possibly a theologically unsound opinion)

For more theology and less ranting, you may want to look at these books. The smaller one of the two is by John C Lennox who is very clever and very good at hard sums. No, he is really. He is Emeritus Professor at Mathematics at Oxford University. Can you imagine being made to do Maths for a living? Did I ever tell you that when I passed my Maths O level, my teacher phoned my mum and told her that in fifteen years of teaching that my passing was the biggest miracle he has witnessed? Charming. (Anyway, I don’t think he was much of a teacher – the only thing I remember about him was that in one lesson he took his vest off without undoing his shirt). Professor Lennox’s book is small, succinct and well thought out. It doesn’t assume knowledge – either about virulent diseases or religion. If someone is genuinely interested, I would definitely feel happy giving this to them.

God and the Pandemic by Tom Wright. (Professor Wright is a Research Professor at the University of St Andrews and Senior Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.) This book is longer, perhaps more directed towards Christians and doesn’t really seem to spend much time addressing “Why?” at all. There seems to be a lot more geared towards – these things have happened many, many times before so, therefore (1) what took you so long? and (2) how should the church react?

There is a lot here but let me tell you what I have taken away from the book. Firstly, he has little time for Christian “Leaders” who are telling us that this is judgement in people for being too worldly, too gay, too fond of a drink or not voting the way you are told to. There were pandemics as Christianity first spread across the world and the early Christians reaction was to heal the sick, feed the hungry and hold the hands of the dying – much to the annoyance of the Romans. He backs this us with lots of historical accounts involving people called things like Plinny and Claudius Lucundus. (I may have made those names up)

The first thing he calls for is a return to Lament. To Lament is, to be sorry, to empathise and complain always should be the first reaction. We should be honest about the way things are and that they are awful before we can react positively rub down our knees and get up and be helpful.

Then he deconstructs what will be a troubling verse for many people at this time

“And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God,18 to those who are the called according to¬†His¬†purpose.” Romans 8 28

Now, he takes the verse apart and, let me be frank, I had to read it a few times to sort of get it, but he breaks the verse down and what he comes back with is more in line with the Good News Translation

“We know that in all things God works for good with those who love him, those whom he has called according to his purpose.” Romans 8 28

This makes more sense to me. I remember when I was ill, a very well-meaning lady shouting “Be strong because this is all working together for your good.” under the church toilet door at me. But it didn’t feel like that. All things? Really? Well maybe. But for me, the promise that God will work for good with us in the most difficult of circumstances is not only more in line with my learned wisdom but is an equally important promise.

There’s another little telling phrase that he uses almost as a throwaway at the end of a chapter. Actions have consequences. So does inaction. These are books by cerebral men but the responses they are calling for is practical and positive and definitely worth the extra thought that reading them demands

Trying to help

So are you out and about now? Apparently, all the young people are taking the loosening of lockdown as an invitation to spend Saturday Nights fighting like Elton John on eight pints of lager. FOW1, who is a manager in a well-known chain of food/drink hostelries, says everything is fine during the day. Lots of beer garden-based, sophisticated burger/prosecco interactions. After 8 pm – it’s like one of those terrible Netflix Armageddon things where people act like they have been let out of an underground cell and must fight to the death to never to go back. Social distancing apparently becomes an alien concept and groups of twelve are coming in and moving tables together, only to be personally affronted when some poor waitress – who has been wearing a mask for her whole shift and it totally at the end of it – explains to them that sitting on each others’ knees will not be acceptable.

Where are you on the whole “mask/no mask” debate? I am wearing mine more and more in shops because I get the feeling that I should. I think they are mandatory in Scotland now which looks very decisive. I just wish I could get over the feeling that, when it comes to the Scottish government, they are more motivated by doing something/anything to look more on top of things than Westminster, rather than the actual science. (There are those that say that looking more on top of things than Westminster is not that difficult but I have nothing to say on that).

We both always wear masks to see Aged Parent. Apart from keeping her safer, the idea is that she won’t forget that there is a pandemic on and will remember to socially distance. She would probably be better with the old distancing, if she wasn’t permanently suspicious that, given half a chance, I will be rooting through her drawers and making away with her bottle of Tweed by Lentheric and her secret stash of Tim Matheson DVDs. (If you are not sure who he is, this is her favourite film of his – Holiday for Love. I think he’s very big on the Hallmark channel and is usually to be found using his acting chops to nurse beautiful women through their last days, discovering that he really always loved the girl next door or turning from a ruthless businessman to someone who finds his fulfilment wearing Arran sweaters by the beach and romancing the local waitress. Listen, don ‘t knock it – he’s probably worth squillions.) Anyway, it is a rule of trying to be useful whilst at AP’s house – cleaning, preparing snacks, unpacking shopping, that you will be followed by AP shouting – “What are you doing now? DON’T go in there!” It can be very trying.

To be fair, she has had a trying week herself. The local befriending service has arranged for her to have a girl come and sit with her once a week to talk to. These are usually young girls who are doing social care at university and are still at the stage where all old people are basically loveable rogues as far as they are concerned so it usually starts off really well. The student obviously isn’t able to start yet but everything is in place. Then AP got a call from the service. “They asked me if I was gay.” I’m taken aback for a moment I must admit but then I realise that it’s one of those diversity questionnaires that the service will have to fill out. I try to explain but, at the moment, she is still a bit suspicious. “They better not send me anyone who thinks I am gay and in the market for anything like that.” Well indeed.

This week, I tried to tell her how to switch the DVD on and off. HOH has set it so that when she has finished watching and switches it off, it automatically defaults back to the telly so she can spend happy afternoons tutting at Loose Women and getting frightened by the Covid spike in Australia. All she has to do is switch it on at the power button, put the DVD in then switch it off at the end. In a socially distanced way, I tried to help her pressing the buttons. Two buttons. On/off and open.

AP……Which do I press?

Me……That one. (Pointing from a distance)

AP……(Pushing button not even in general vicinity) This one?

Me……Nooo. It’s the one you have your finger on now but aren’t pushing.

AP……(Moving finger away from correct button) This one then?

Me……No. Why did you move your finger?

AP……(Quite snappish now) Because YOU said it was wrong. (Presses completely different button and ejects Charlton Heston before he has even got going with the first commandment)

Me……Are you doing this on purpose?

AP……I’m not convinced you have any idea how to work this. Where’s Colin? He’d better not be going through my drawers in that bathroom.

Is anyone else tired? Have a good week.

The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry

By John Mark Comer

John Mark Comer

Many, many years ago when I was an “O” level student and my mum and I were really getting on each other’s nerves, I decided to kill two birds with one stone and retreat to my bedroom to (a) get ahead on reading a set book and (b) try not to run with an axe at my, in those days, not so Aged Parent.

The book was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and I read it in one afternoon. It was a revelation. The essential idea around Brave New World is not that in the future we would all be controlled by threats or guns but by distractions – constant tiny distractions to stop us thinking too deeply or getting to the bottom of anything. And here we are – hurried, hassled, fearful of missing out and with the attention spans of a particularly distracted gnat. (Just me)?

The phrase “Ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life” is usually attributed to Dallas Willard advising John Ortberg. This book is a sort of handbook of how to put some of that into practice. Comer was a pastor of a huge church with several campuses. (Why do they call them that? It’s annoying.) He was preaching too many times on a Sunday and more or less woke up one day and said Nope. He realised that his life was not sustainable as it was. He was too busy, too distracted and unhappy with the person that he was becoming.

The solution for him was to switch from being a follower of Jesus to an apprentice. The difference being that he would look to model himself and his lifestyle on the life of Jesus. This means he looks to build his life around principles of simplicity, community and spiritual disciplines. In practice, he embraces minimalism, doggedly puts in place a sabbath – which for him means no screens, making time for family and friends and er sex. (I didn’t ask – he told me anyway). By the way, Sabbath for him is a Saturday – he’s a preacher – he works on Sunday. He also explores the spiritual disciplines – prayer, Bible, fasting etc.

This is an immensely helpful book. It is very practical and challenging – especially on minimalism feeding into social justice i.e. our constant quest for more leading to fast fashion, sweatshops etc. He breaks down all the various components into simple but not always easily achievable actions. He encourages us to look at what it is that takes our time and ask what its value is. There are a few full-on challenges about getting rid of social media, switching your mobile to phone only and killing your tv. But there are also positive challenges around stillness, prayer and time for friendship building.

From a bit of a personal perspective, I found it a bit too groovy here and there. I’m not sure I am entirely the target audience. I’m not as up to speed as I might be on the wisdom of Biggie Smalls and whoever’s idea this font size was for the chapter on disciplines has some explaining to do.

I had to take a few deep breaths on once again being told about taking time to smell the Bible etc by a young man who cycles to work via snowflakes and daffodils and seems to find a lot of time to spend in coffee shops. But, the fact is he is right about most things and he addresses a problem that definitely needs addressing. So, even if you are a mum of three with a full-time job whose Saturdays are taken up dishwashing, ironing, meal planning with sixpence in the bank and preparing to do the whole thing again on Monday, there are still some excellent principles here.

Well hello

I took a break. You might not have noticed. You probably have enough going on at the moment. And that’s just how I felt. I had enough going on. I needed to do some reading, some thinking, some general slowing down. Then, the slight relaxation of lockdown (funny how these words are just everyday expressions now) was as if someone had run on with a klaxon shouting “DON’T PANIC” to anyone who needed to listen. Suddenly all the things that were in the “planning for when we come back” stage ran hysterically into the “you could do with taking this forward very quickly now” stage.

I am working half from home at the moment, which is working better than I expected. I did think there was a chance that I would spend half the day lying on my bed eating digestives and listening to Woman’s Hour and the rest playing Two Point Hospital on Playstation but that has not happened at all. I would not like you to misjudge my tone here and think that I am disappointed by the way this has turned out.

I know only too well that my home working is only possible because I am either alone here or, if HOH is in the flat (HOH – “apartment”!), he is happy to make himself scarce and spend a morning bidding on records on the Internet that no-one else had heard of and I can get on with my work. I can’t imagine working from home with children around. These people have my utmost admiration.

Like the rest of the world, I am getting quite good at Webinars etc. now. I have developed a few strategies to help though. They are for my use but experience has taught me that a few other people could take these on board as well.

One. If you can turn your camera off then do so. If it’s not a discussion, then no-one needs to see you and all they will do is watch you staring disconsolately at the screen and make silent judgements about your wallpaper and your double chin(s). Also, if the washing machine finishes its cycle, you can put your washing on the maiden while still listening and not upset the speaker who may think you look like you are not paying attention.

Two. If you need to turn your camera on then, it’s probably best to make a bit of an effort. Have a shower, that kind of thing. Also, do your snacking before you start. I have watched a woman eat an entire jam doughnut with all the general messiness that goes with it and found the whole experience quite disconcerting. Certainly distracting enough to take my mind off “delivery strategies during a pandemic”. (Although watching paint dry could do that as well)

Three. I have found it helpful to face the light source in the house rather than have it behind me. If you get this wrong, it can look like your discussion on social distancing on a 9 seater minibus has been crashed by a Dementor – no features – just a terrifying dark outline.

Four. Try and remember not to wave as the meeting finishes. When was the last time you left a physical meeting, backing out of the door, waving and shouting…”Bye”. Once you think about this you can’t forget it and it becomes embarrassing every time you do it.

We have been to see Aged Parent several times now – done a bit of cleaning that kind of thing but tried not to stay too long. We have both been fully masked but she is struggling to get the hang of Social Distancing as many others are, I suspect and we have to keep shooing her away. The whole thing is still very confusing. We managed to have a stand-up row with a member of the caring team who insisted that only one of us should have been in. I wouldn’t have minded but we had rung up before we set off to check on the rules. Said carer then came in while I was changing the bed and apologised profusely because she had got the rules wrong. We were very gracious about it – partly because we are still not 100% sure that we had it right either. It is all very complicated.

This weekend also brought a reminder that we should all be grateful that Aged Parent did not go into the nursing and caring professions. She went to a birthday party in the garden for her friend. Halfway through the party (crucially, before the cake was cut) the lady keeled over and an ambulance was called.

Me……….How is your friend?

AP……….Oh it’s a stroke apparently.

Me………..Oh no! How is she do you know?

AP……….Oh, she’s ok, it’s only a slight stroke. It certainly spoiled the party and that was an expensive cake that no-one got to have a slice of.

Missing the Pandemic

I understand that this may be in slightly bad taste and the last thing I would like to do is minimise the devastating effects of a global pandemic but I confess that there are some things I will miss about the lock-down. This is in no way connected to the phone call we received from Aged Parent yesterday informing us that we can now visit her for a socially distanced half hour and, if I thought I heard HOH sighing “Well, it couldn’t last forever” I was probably mistaken.

Peace and Quiet. When the initial call to lockdown came and we all ran scuttling back into our homes, I don’t think any of us were prepared for just what a post-pandemic apocalyptic landscape would look like. But, in the absence of an explosive nuclear wipeout, it looked quite nice. HOH took the instruction to exercise regularly very seriously and I would often find myself being dragged/walking the streets of our neighbourhood at all hours and they were deserted. We are blessed. The photo you see above is about 200 metres from us and to walk this walk everyday or evening was just so perspective-altering and peaceful. Now, it is packed to the drawstrings every hour with people dragging paddleboards out of the back of four-by-fours, long queues for a socially distanced sausage on a roll and children called Quail crying because they keep falling off their new bike.

Gratitude. This was the time when we stopped for a moment and realised what we had. We looked at the workforce and suddenly the heroes were shop workers, delivery drivers, public transport providers, care-home workers and NHS frontliners. Without these people, we would have ground to a halt and, the dramatic but accurate fact is that some of them paid for their service with their lives. We all made rainbow and gratitude signs for our windows and there was a lovely spirit about it all. However, There was also a lot of uncomfortable shuffling about the fact that our new heroes’ pay rates seemed to be set by starting at the bottom of any scale you could mention and seeing if we could go any lower. There have been promises from “Top People” to put that right as soon as is humanly possible. The view from an NHS hero who lives in this house is that no-one at the pointy end is really expecting that to happen. I hope he’s wrong. I suspect he is not.

Re-Assessing. Lots of people have been pushed off the merry-go-round and found that they quite like it. This is a complex issue. Many people have been told to leave work and suspect that they will never get to go back. They are not as thrilled as people called Tarquin are because they have found that they are a dab-hand with the old sourdough. It’s not that they are not pleased for you Tarqs – it’s just that they can’t get past the worries about paying rent, buying food – that kind of thing. But, without ignoring that humongous elephant in the room, there does seem to be a lot of people who don’t want to go back to where they were. People have enjoyed time with families, volunteering is at a massive high and numbers signing in to watch online church services are off the scale. People are on the search for something deeper. It has to be a good thing.

A Why Not Attitude. Even though, as an old person, I may have had palpitations watching people demonstrate on Black Lives Matter marches (I watch these demonstrators walking toe to toe and I keep thinking “Don’t visit your Nan for a couple of weeks love”) I think that the young people especially think that this is a moment and I think Covid 19 may be at least partially responsible for that. In the past, they have been told that this is the way it is and nothing really changes. Well, things obviously do change and seismic alterations to the status quo can happen so why not this and why not now?

These are difficult times. Despite what the behaviour of people who feel that it is ok to arrange a picnic for sixteen with enough beer to rescue several failing local breweries might suggest, there has been no miracle cure. But, many people have lost faith in the government either because of startling hypocrisy which suggests that “Sorry” seems to indeed be the hardest word or just incompetence with a purity that is almost admirable. People are more or less doing their own thing when it comes to lockdown – but, for most of us that means using our own common sense and that seems to be ok.

Am I wrong to think that values may be shifting – just a tad? Has this made us do that thing we used to do as kids when the Go-Kart was going too fast and we used to put our foot out and drag it along the ground to slow it down? Six months ago, it would be hard to imagine us where we are now. There is, I think, a good proportion of people who would like to move forward from this rather than back.