Know their name

September 2, 2019

“Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language”.

Dale Carnegie wasn’t wrong when he said these words. As a man who taught thousands in the business world about better interpersonal skills, he knew what he was talking about. If there’s one word that we can pick out of a cacophony of sound, it’s our name. Our ears are uniquely tuned to it; when we hear it, our attention turns to the source.

Today, I returned to school for that first teachers day back and the customary rally-the-troops speech from the head teacher. “I want this to be a school where every student is known individually”, our head said, “and where each student is known by their name”. It was a good speech even with the old clichés!

I reflected on it: do I know the names of all my students? Probably not. But I can afford myself a little flexibility working in one of the most ethnically diverse boroughs in London. It has children’s names with some of the most exotic syllables I know and which are somewhat alien to my native tongue.

That said, why should we make the effort to learn and know the names of those we meet?

As a teacher, you quickly learn the power of knowing a name. Referring to someone by name instantaneously connects you with that person. When you refer to someone by their name, especially if you’ve just met them, they feel known by you, and as a result closer to you, even if this is just perceived.

But it goes further than this. Taking the time to learn the most personal (and important) word in a person’s dictionary means you are treating them as an individual, worthy of your attention and time. You are subconsciously placing value on them. And, most likely, they will want to do the same back.

Maybe you work in a big team, or in a school, or you are about to enter an educational setting, and you’ve read this and think to yourself – as so many do – but I’m bad at learning names. The truth is, everyone is but there are things you can to help yourself.

When meeting someone for the first time, say their name three times in your initial conversation. My favourite method is to remember a name by associating it with something familiar – syllables for symbols. Or, finally, write a name down as soon as you can – this gives you a mental picture when trying to remember it next time.

This week let’s be that person who knows everyone by name because everyone we meet matters.

By the way, did you know that God knows you by name? Interesting thought, that!

Why we need more rules

August 21, 2019

It’s been a day of nerves, joy, and I’m sure in some cases, tears for over 700,000 GCSE students as they discovered what their hard work (or not!) earnt them.

I was delighted to hear my friend’s daughter get the results she wanted. But I’m reminded what it took – sticking to rules though self-discipline: no phone, ample revision, and saying ‘no’ when you want to say ‘yes’ to your friends.

It works. Rules work. I know because I’m a secondary school teacher. I know where a no rule classroom leads to: a special kind of hell!

Head teacher Katharine Birbalsingh of Michaela School, a free school near Wembley, advocates for a stricter, more rules approach. “It’s good to have rules”, she says, “children know where they stand”. Her students are not doing too badly grand-wise, either.

Sadly, you can see the lack of rules play out in children’s lives. In shops, restaurants, holiday parks, or hotels we hear the familiar “No, stop doing that!” from mum and dad but the child just ignores them. Often, rules, and certainly consequences, are not part of our children’s experience. There are only going to be losers in this microcosm of anarchy.

Adults need rules too. After living in this rule and responsibility deprived society, are we once again seeking the reassurance of rules? After all, rules go a long way in helping us order the otherwise chaos of our daily life.

“Since the hippy days, we in the West have fed ourselves on a steady diet of freedom and rights”,[1] says the Jordan Peterson, author of bestselling self-help book 12 Rules for Life. His message of responsibility has taken the internet by storm and he’s now regarded as one of the leading intellectuals of our time.

He believes rules are important, too. And as a clinical psychologist, he’s seen enough hellish and chaotic lives so I’m not going to argue with him. Far from it; I agree with him.

His message is not about rules, but where following rules leads us. The meaning we extract from life is not to be found in our rights, but, instead, in responsibility; “In the care we take with ourselves, our families, and broader society surrounding us”.[2]

I guess the self-discipline it takes to keep any rule has other benefits, too. In keeping a rule – a commitment we make to ourselves – we strengthen our confidence and sense of worth.

So, taking my own advice, I decided to make a rule for myself: to eat my three meals a day at the appropriate time. On school holidays my breakfast, lunch and dinner times go a little wayward. But I’ve pretty much done kept my rule and I feel better for it!  What will your new rule be?

Notes:

[1] https://www.bbc.com/ideas/videos/jordan-peterson-why-we-need-more-rules/p067c04l?playlist=imho

[2] Ibid

You Good Samaritan

August 19, 2019

The term ‘Good Samaritan’ is part of our vernacular. But I wonder whether I would be one? Or, how about you?

For those of us who may get caught in the no-man’s-land between bystander and Good Samaritan then I have some good news. There has been a study suggesting there are more Good Samaritans out there than we may at first think. It challenges the so-called bystander effect – that people, on average, will not help strangers in distress. Maybe we have it in us, after all. The conclusion was made after studying hundreds of incidents on CCTV of people stepping in to help a perfect stranger in their moment of distress.

The phrase ‘Good Samaritan’ has passed into our cultural vocabulary – everyone knows what it means – the person who does not just walk on by when seeing someone in trouble. But where did this term ‘Good Samaritan’ come from?

Actually, from a story Jesus once told.

Jesus is many things to many different people, but he was also a good storyteller. Not to entertain but to educate. In an intriguing encounter, a lawyer approached Jesus. The lawyer knew the central biblical teaching of “love your neighbour as yourself”. But the lawyer wanted to know who his ‘neighbour’ really was. What Jesus then shared is still relevant today:

“In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him”.

Then Jesus asked, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?””[1]

What the modern reader might miss is that the Samaritan was not ethnically or religiously connected to the man who was attacked. And so Jesus helped lift the eyes of the lawyer, raising his sight to see his neighbour was not just the person who lived next door, nor just the people he shared a culture or language with. But his neighbour included anyone he came into contact with.

Interesting thought. How about next time we see that stranger in trouble, we are the ones who go and help.

Notes:

[1] The Bible, Luke 10:30-34, 36 (NIVUK)

[Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash]

Identity: where is it safe?

August 14, 2019

Identity – our personal identity – has become something of a commodity in our digitalised, technology-driven culture. But its increasing availability is alarming.

Just a cursory look at today’s headlines will show concerns over facial recognition being used at King’s Cross, the millions of fingerprints that have been leaked by a security firm, and the recent explosion in people handing over their DNA to companies in exchange for information about their ancestry.

What are the implications?

If information about our identity is in the hands of another then there is a shift in power. We may become powerless – or at least subject to influence – and others may have power over us – after all knowledge is power. But maybe more than that, does this accumulation of personal data not erode the liberty we have enjoyed for so long and the privacy that is inherent in the West’s emphasis on human dignity?

I don’t have all the answers or even the solutions. But I do have something else.

I have a hiding place – a place of safety where my personal information will not be misused.

We have an innate desire for our identity to be protected, or at least respected. There are some things in our life, in our personal histories, that are rightly private. I wouldn’t feel too good if it got into the wrong hands. But for me, I have found a place where my most personal information and identity will be protected.

So where?

Many would argue that the liberty and emphasis on human dignity the West has espoused, has flown organically from a very specific Christian concept about human identity: that we are made in the image of God. You may not believe in this personal God, but this idea led me to my place of safety.

The Christian concept of identity is encouraging for this reason. We are told that Jesus is interested in keeping our identity safe and unique – our personal information hidden away.

“…and your life”, the Scriptures tell us, “has been safely guarded by the Messiah [Jesus] in God”.[1]

And there is a big difference in our identity being in Jesus: he won’t misuse it.

I appreciate this may be of little consequence if you don’t believe in Jesus. But if you find the idea encouraging why not search out this safe place?

Notes:

[1] The Bible, Colossians 3:3 (ISV)

What does the future hold?

August 8, 2019

Maybe you’ve been one of the TikTok users who’ve been sharing the viral #Globalwarning videos that show the time-lapse effects of global warming.

From 2019 to 3019, the 15-second video is pretty sobering viewing showing what is to come: no water, over-heating, and choking on plastic! Anna Bogomolova, from Russia, seems to capture the mood well in her video.

But in the here and now, I can hear that summer sound of a British lawnmower and that irresistible summer smell of freshly cut grass. 3019 seems so far away! So what, really, will it be like?

One thousand years ago, in a century that played host to the likes of Macbeth, Edward the Confessor, William the Conquer and his Doomsday book, they would have hardly been able to see what the next millennium would hold for humanity, no less us the next millennium.

So are these videos another example of the new sound-bite, virtue signalling media that passes as authoritative and acceptable to our short-attention-span, sound-bite generation? Maybe! Yes, I agree, we should be aware and warned about our effects on mother earth but reducing the complexity of climate change (or should it be ‘heating’) to a 15-second time-lapse video?! I’m not too sure.

Ok, with little rant over, could there be another outcome by 3019? I hope and believe so.

Some believe in another time-lapse scenario. This time-lapse comes in print and its predictions are a little more hopeful than what’s trending on TikTok. Some say it’s a source to help us see into the future. It’s claims of such a prophetic ability come from the predictions it’s made and gotten right!

The prediction I would like to share illustrates a very opposite outcome. So here’s 15-seconds of something a little more hopeful:

“The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy”.[1]

Wow! If only. But why the change?

Because “they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God”.

These words are from the famous Middle Eastern prophet, Isaiah. Much of his writings were about a future time of worldwide liberation from the ills we see plague this planet, including global warming, as a result of the intervention of a personal God here on earth.

Now, just because this is a nice thought, it doesn’t make it true. Correct. So why do some believe there is more to his words than Middle Eastern musing? Because he also predicted the first appearance of God, in the form of Jesus.

Maybe this dessert blossoming is worth a second look?

Notes:

[1] The Bible, Isaiah 35:1-2

[Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash]

Out of the ground

August 5, 2019

If you were to ask me what my best outdoor survival strategy was, I would probably say Tesco’s! But after spending last week in the scenic Welsh south coast countryside of Pendine, I have a different answer.

My experience was to turn out more Bear Grylls than cashier tills! Gathered around a campfire, with nettle bread in the pan, I was about to visit a very different supermarket: the British countryside where the food is free.

The summer camp I attend each year (SEP) has always been a place for stepping out of my proverbial comfort zone and learning more about the natural wonder that surrounds us. Last week, our instructor, Dan, took us no more than 30 paces down this a pick n’ mix pathway! Dandelion, silverweed, wood sorrel, broadleaf plantain, and, apparently, any berry that grows on a plant with thorns on was good to eat! Who know the ground of the British countryside was so full of edibles (and I’m not talking drugs!). And get this, if you are looking for a bit of pain relief, then why don’t you try a bit of willow bark(!) which works the same way as aspirin does, by reducing inflammation and pain as it enters your bloodstream.

This experience reminded me that the earth is kind to us. On some level, the personification of the earth as a nurturing mother makes sense, after all, 95% of the food we eat comes from the soil! But this ‘mother’ has been somewhat under-visited with our modern lifestyle.

As I made my acquaintance, once again, with this Britain, I am reminded of a long-lost appreciation for this ‘promised land’ once echoed by Shakespeare in his play Richard II: “this sceptered isle, this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, this other Eden, demi-paradise”!

Just like the biblical Eden where “out of the ground the Lord God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food”[1], I can see somehow we have in this ‘other Eden’ our very own pleasant and good food to eat. Happy eating.

Notes:

[1] The Bible, Genesis 2:9 (NKJV)

[Photo by Eduardo Jaeger on Unsplash]

Time and chance

July 17, 2019

I have never seen a cricket match like it! England’s win in the final of the cricket World Cup against New Zealand will go down as one of the greats.

The game had more twists and turns than the Nürburgring racetrack. Some extraordinary things happened that couldn’t have been scripted even if you tried. Twists in the game that seemed like such chance happenings yet had such pivotal effects on the outcome – things really did turn on a five-pence piece.

But happenstance can lead us to question whether we are really in control of our future. These events, often momentary and freakish, can so quickly influence the direction of life. If you’ve ever watched the movie Sliding Doors you will know what I mean – it is scary to think what difference missing a train can make to your life!

I had my own ‘sliding doors’ moment today. I was driving to work as I have done for the last nine years. But something happened that had never happened before. As I was driving, someone pulled out and hit the back of my car. I couldn’t help but reflect on my frustration about how different my day would have been if I had left home a few seconds earlier or later; I wouldn’t be standing on the side of the road asking whether the lollipop lady witnessed the accident!

So are we servants’– victims, maybe – of time and chance. Are the happenings of our life as unpredictable as a roll of a dice?

This feeling can often lead us to default to a fatalistic worldview about the universe in which we hear ourselves say almost religious-like statements such as, “Whatever will be, will be”, “It’s fate, nothing you can do about it”, “Everything happens for a reason”. I get why statements like this are said – at times, I have added to the chorus – but statements like this leave me with a question: is life a product of time and chance?

For me, I have come to see things differently.

Yes, when navigating life, I have developed a mental flexibility that is comfortable, or at least consigned, to the randomness of events. I know things happen to people all the time: time and chance is a part of the human experience. But I don’t feel on the roller-coaster of life, at the mercy of fate, without any control.

My belief in another, namely the Christian God, has changed my perspective on this question. It has not meant I can explain every happening, or that every event is positive and without frustration and questions. At least in my journey with God, I don’t think that is how God works. Rather, I have another consolation…

In my limited understanding, God does not stop happenstance – time and chance – but he draws meaning and purpose from it. In my experience, it is from life’s events – some random, some very unpleasant – that he creates purpose. I guess, life is not a tapestry of untamed, random events, but the patchwork of individual events that, when you step back, become a picture of something more meaningful; something God is working with.

God puts it like this: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”[1]

Notes:

[1] The Bible, Romans 8:28 (NIV)

[Photo by Mike Szczepanski on Unsplash]

Looking for the good

July 10, 2019

I do like a robust debate. The verbal sparring and intellectual chest thumping are all quite entertaining. You may have seen last night’s debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, both vying to be the next Prime Minister.

But after all the ‘blue-on-blue’ shots are fired, there is a cost. Two people from the same team end up further away from each other than they did at the start. Maybe more than this, they probably have a job detoxing all their anger and bitterness from the previous night’s vitriol. This would give anybody’s emotional plumbing a workout. But let’s be honest, even the most forgiving amongst us would have a job letting go of some of those penetrating comments.

The point is, words create unintended consequences: they can create distance, resentment, and end friendships. Now, I’m no snowflake who thinks debates should be sanitised into a rainbow and unicorn pageant. But I believe, in debate, or any difficult conversation, there is a better way.

This better way was offered to Johnson and Hunt in yesterday’s debate. It came from the last question asked:

“What do you most admire about your opponent?”, came the question. It drew a small chuckle from the audience – they knew this may be the hardest and most humbling question for both to answer.

Johnson and Hunt answered with creative ambiguity: an answer which was very much a two-sided compliment that simultaneously showed the opponents weakness.

Maybe they should have taken a leaf out the book of a man who probably had as many public confrontations as we’ve had hot dinners. He was a man who learnt how to navigate the hostile territory of the debate, and those who wanted to run him down. No surprises when I tell you that it was a religious environment that bred this contempt. And the target for the contempt was the Jesus of the Bible.

I like Jesus for many reasons. But one of them is how he handled hostility.

Jesus had some advice for all of us when in the arena of confrontation. It is advice that stems from the question asked to Johnson and Hunt: look for the good in others. Jesus put it like this:

Bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.[1]

Ok, easier said than done. But if done, things end a lot better.

Notes:

[1] The Bible, Matthew 5:44 (NKJV)

Is it time we found our safe space?

July 8, 2019

I rarely get ill. But last week was an exception. I must have hit a wall of sorts because I lost the ability to function as a normal human being! That day, after work, I decided to self-prescribe the universal medicine that is, bedrest.

After some 20 hours, I woke to what was as surprising as it was worrying!

Now, I’m no Mr Popular, but looking down at my phone I did question the sustainability of my life when seeing seven missed calls, nine text messages, ten Whatsapp messages, and 11 emails.

Even thinking about having to reply made me noxious. Something wasn’t right, and I was starting to see why. Maybe it was time to find a safe space.

For me, the phrase ‘safe spaces’ conjures up cotton wool wrapped university students whose sensitivities are imposed on others as the new norm. I meet this kind of new age behaviour as a teacher. But this is not the kind of safe space I am referring to. The safe space we all need more of is one during each week where all the outside stuff cannot get in; a space where you can lay all your burdens down.

This soul searching is not an unfamiliar pursuit for us 21st century sojourners. You may have heard the reports of increasing numbers of young Jains, a religious community in India, who have begun renouncing the material world for their own ‘safe space’. In the case of the Jain’s, this ritual of renunciation means they will always walk barefoot and eat only what they receive in alms. They will never use a vehicle, never bathe, never sleep under a fan and never speak on a mobile phone.[1] The number of those taking the renunciation has gone from 10-15 a year, to 250, and is expected to top 400 this year. One reason for this increase is the disenchantment of the young with the pressures of modern life.

This same pressure from the woes of modernity was felt by Samantha Bell when she suffered a number of losses, whilst also having to deal with incurable cancer. She decided her safe space was going to be the dance studio. She would leave her phone at the door when she came to teach. The dance studio was the place she would let nothing in. It’s been a fruitful decision: her dancers are the first UK team to take part in the World Cup in Portugal later this month.

Maybe this is what I need? Maybe this is what you need? A safe space where we can leave life at the door and find solace, serenity, some precious seconds to restore a sound mind and balance. To meditate, to pray, to process, to search and recover who we are meant to be on this great journey called life.

I’m already keeping my phone on silent permanently. It’s a good step towards my own safe space.

Notes:

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-48879591

[Photo by Kornél Máhl on Unsplash]

Immigration – a different view

July 1, 2019

The media last week showed pictures of the young man from San Salvador who died in the Rio Grande, along with his two or four-year-old daughter. (Age depending on which media source you read or watched.)

It was a shocking picture and the various talking heads commenting tended to blame President Trump and his tough immigration policy. It’s worth observing, however, that while that death made the news, many other young people have also died trying to cross from Mexico to America as illegal immigrants.

But before we join the chorus of criticism, let’s remember that immigrants are also drowning in the Mediterranean and English Channel. Any death is a tragedy but when these people have undergone a long arduous journey to try and find a better life for themselves and their families, it seems especially hard.

So who is to blame? Some might say it is the fault of the immigrants themselves who have willingly taken a gamble in the hope of a better life for the future. But who are we to judge when many of this number are literally fleeing for their lives from persecution, war, famine or disease? Then there are the governments of those countries the immigrants are fleeing – don’t they have to accept some responsibility for their own citizens? Except that in some of these examples, the government is at war with its own citizens.

A separate issue to consider is the question of how many immigrants we can absorb? Our hearts go out to people struggling against the odds to achieve a better life. But isn’t it acceptable to have policies that control the numbers of legal immigrants and, at the same time, aim to control illegal ones?

A Christian response is to weep for all these people, whether alive or dead, who are forced to leave their own countries and travel so far in such difficult circumstances.

Many churches have programmes to welcome and help immigrants, whether legal or illegal and that surely is a good thing to do.

I don’t know the solution to this difficult problem, but perhaps we should thank God that, by accident of birth, we already live in a relatively free and prosperous society. Perhaps instead of moaning about all we think is wrong with the UK, we should count our blessings to be living here and ask ourselves why we are so attractive to immigrants.

My prayer is that God will show our governments, and the governments of the countries the immigrants are trying to leave, a better way to handle this more and more common 21st century problem.

Keith Hartrick.

[Keith is a retired Managing Director and the church leader of our Leeds congregation, Grace Communion International. He is editor of Richard’s blogs.]

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