Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Brain chemicals and practising virtues

I recently read these two interesting articles over at The School of Life, on brain chemistry and going good. It’s weird the way we now feel compelled to find scientific benefits or reasons for such things (the natural outcome of taking evolution, purely, on board as your reason for existence). Here’s a snippet from this one:
Because doing something for someone else without expecting anything in return is the best way to put our brain in the finest possible state.

It’s funny how science now ‘gives us permission’ to practice common decency.
And I liked this clarifier from this one:

To discover a molecule that correlates with compassionate behaviour doesn’t mean that being compassionate is not a moral stance. We’re not slaves to the chemicals in our brains, we are the chemicals in our brains and we do plenty of things to raise or lower their levels at will.
I find this School of Life so curious. On their facebook page at the moment they are running a "month of reaching out", which sounds eerily like a Christian mission (only without the most important element, that being the gospel).

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Nietzsche on goodwill

Among the small but endlessly abundant and therefore very effective things that science ought to heed more than the great, rare things, is goodwill. I mean those expressions of a friendly disposition in interactions, that smile of the eye, those handclasps ... It is the continual manifestation of our humanity, its ray of light ... in which everything grows.
- Nietzsche

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Poetry Day - The Burning of our House

Lots of people in Australia have suffered in bushfires of late, loosing their homes and all their worldly goods, and some, horrifically, their lives. Meanwhile I have been flicking through some more of Anne Bradstreets poems, and came upon this one, written after their house burnt down during the night, at a time when they had children and grandchildren living with them. So, here it is. I don't mean this to be insensitive to anyone in this position (I don't know of any such people personally, and being something of a sentimentalist I am the first to admit that I would be distraught to lose all my things) and it doesn't speak to those facing the death of loved ones by the same event, but I found it quite challenging to myself and my own attachment to my possessions.

Verses upon the Burning of our House

Here Follows Some Verses Upon the Burning
of Our house, July 10th. 1666. Copied Out of
a Loose Paper.

In silent night when rest I took,
For sorrow near I did not look,
I waken'd was with thund'ring noise
And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice.
That fearful sound of "fire" and "fire,"
Let no man know is my Desire.
I starting up, the light did spy,
And to my God my heart did cry
To straighten me in my Distress
And not to leave me succourless.
Then coming out, behold a space
The flame consume my dwelling place.
And when I could no longer look,
I blest his grace that gave and took,
That laid my goods now in the dust.
Yea, so it was, and so 'twas just.
It was his own; it was not mine.
Far be it that I should repine,
He might of all justly bereft
But yet sufficient for us left.
When by the Ruins oft I past
My sorrowing eyes aside did cast
And here and there the places spy
Where oft I sate and long did lie.
Here stood that Trunk, and there that chest,
There lay that store I counted best,
My pleasant things in ashes lie
And them behold no more shall I.
Under the roof no guest shall sit,
Nor at thy Table eat a bit.
No pleasant talk shall 'ere be told
Nor things recounted done of old.
No Candle 'ere shall shine in Thee,
Nor bridegroom's voice ere heard shall bee.
In silence ever shalt thou lie.
Adieu, Adieu, All's Vanity.
Then straight I 'gin my heart to chide:
And did thy wealth on earth abide,
Didst fix thy hope on mouldring dust,
The arm of flesh didst make thy trust?
Raise up thy thoughts above the sky
That dunghill mists away may fly.
Thou hast a house on high erect
Fram'd by that mighty Architect,
With glory richly furnished
Stands permanent, though this be fled.
It's purchased and paid for too
By him who hath enough to do.
A price so vast as is unknown,
Yet by his gift is made thine own.
There's wealth enough; I need no more.
Farewell, my pelf; farewell, my store.
The world no longer let me love;
My hope and Treasure lies above.

Anne Bradstreet

Private poetry

I am supposed to be at our Made Fair markets bright and early again today, though the weather wasn't looking so promising, so I scheduled in this artsy little piece of poetry for you, taken at Sculptures by the Sea at Bondi last weekend. Gaze and ponder and think poetic thoughts ...

(What you need to appreciate about this photo is how I have angled it and cropped it to remove a few of the six million people, approximately, who were at Bondi that day.)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

This morning's breakfast

I had breakfast with John Anderson this morning. As in the former Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson. Quite literally. I went along to a support-raising breakfast for Crusaders at which he was the speaker, assuming I’d have nothing to do with him, but as these things were arranged I was sitting at his table. He's from up my way, near Tamworth, you know. It was a good morning. The only problem with it was that I had to be at NSW Parliament House at 7:15 am (in the pouring rain). Right about now I want to put my face on my desk and snooze.

(He gave a fairly general sort of speech about the importance of teaching children Truth, as well as seeing beyond themselves, referencing an article called United States of Narcissism by Daniel Altman.)

A family jam session

So, apparently these are three siblings, just doing what they like to do. Quite amazing.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The pressure of the soul

It's enough to make a Berkeleyan of you, this mercurial changeability of all reality under the pressure of the soul.
- Eva Hoffman
Lost in Translation

I read that, and I had to go and look up Berkeleyan (subjective idealism, see here too under Western Philosophy), but find it so true that our perception of reality changes with the state of our soul.

Turning myself inside out

On Sunday evening, when I really should have been thinking about going to bed, I pulled Inside Out by Larry Crabb off the shelf, driven by a sense of failure that I can never seem to get some things right, and end up in a pattern of relating that seems to result in nothing but my own ruin. This was a bad idea. I fell asleep quite convinced that I need to go off to counselling. The last night after Simply Christianity I picked up the offending book again. So now I am all messed up trying to un-mess myself.

Simply Christianity again

So last night I lead Simply Christianity again for Week 4 on the Cross. There was a good amount of material in this one (or a number of different important concepts to present anyway), and I spent a good amount of time getting myself ready over the weekend. I was wondering whether anyone would turn up and hoping and praying that they would, and then every single person who has dropped into the course over the last three weeks came along! So, what an answer to prayer that was. And one girl, who came for week 1 then skipped the next two, pulled out her book and it was all dog-eared and underlined and she said “I haven’t been here but I have been reading this …”. So, how encouraging and exciting. We had a good night.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Poetry Day - Another

It is well and truly time for a poem. I thought I might post a poem by Anne Bradstreet, known as one of America's first poets, after she sailed to its shores with her husband and the Winthrop Puritans. You can read more about Anne Bradstreet here.

Picture from here.
Another II

As loving hind that (hartless) wants her deer,
Scuds through the woods and fern with hark'ning ear,
Perplext, in every bush and nook doth pry,
Her dearest deer, might answer ear or eye;
So doth my anxious soul, which now doth miss
A dearer dear (far dearer heart) than this.
Still wait with doubts, and hopes, and failing eye,
His voice to hear or person to descry.
Or as the pensive dove doth all alone
(On withered bough) most uncouthly bemoan
The absence of her love and loving mate,
Whose loss hath made her so unfortunate,
Ev'n thus do I, with many a deep sad groan,
Bewail my turtle true, who now is gone,
His presence and his safe return still woos,
With thousand doleful sighs and mournful coos.
Or as the loving mullet, that true fish,
Her fellow lost, nor joy nor life do wish,
But launches on that shore, there for to die,
Where she her captive husband doth espy.
Mine being gone, I lead a joyless life,
I have a loving peer, yet seem no wife;
But worst of all, to him can't steer my course,
I here, he there, alas, both kept by force.
Return my dear, my joy, my only love,
Unto thy hind, thy mullet, and thy dove,
Who neither joys in pasture, house, nor streams,
The substance gone, O me, these are but dreams.
Together at one tree, oh let us browse,
And like two turtles roost within one house,
And like the mullets in one river glide,
Let's still remain but one, till death divide.
Thy loving love and dearest dear,
At home, abroad, and everywhere.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Anticipating ...

So it seems it’s all gone to flummery here. I have so many books I want to read that I don’t seem to be reading. I don’t even know why. It’s partly owing to the stupidest crochet project in the world (which is only stupid in terms of the amount of time involved). My Mum never reads this blog, so perhaps I can show you that. Then there are distractions, which seem to mean I can spend long periods of time simply staring into space.

I did actually receive another surprise package when I was on holidays in September, when a dear old friend in Perth sent me Bonhoeffer, by Eric Metaxas, as a belated birthday present. It’s been sitting on my dressing table in anticipation ever since. I’ve read both of Challies’s reviews (here, and where he discusses criticisms that it’s forcing Bonhoeffer into the evangelical camp here). Interesting. I’m not one of those people who has to sign off on everything a theologian/writer says to be able to appreciate what good they do say, so I am not so bothered by the notion that Bonhoeffer may have held a few weird ideas, and I don’t necessarily even need to know what all those weird ideas were. However, representing him truthfully in a biography may be another issue. Still, I am looking forward to the book, which my very widely read friend tells me is one of the best things she’s read in an age. (And some time ago Cathy shared some thoughts on the book here too.)

That is all.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Broken-hearted banjo

I’ve mentioned before going to hear "my mate Dave" play Banjo (and guitar) for the Folk Club. Well, he has now started a tumblr of 60’s covers on the Banjo (and guitar). It is very seriously cool, funky, hip, or, as Simon and Garfunkel might say, groovy … Have a listen here.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Simply Christianity report

Last night was my first go at actually leading Simply Christianity. And I got the week on judgment. But thankfully it was also tied in with the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). I like the way the course has done this. Sure judgment is coming, and God hates greed and hypocrisy and every sort of injustice (but I also liked the way sin is defined as not living ‘wildly’ but just living ‘separately’ from God, and wanting the gifts but not the giver) and yet at the same time here is a picture of God’s willingness to offer complete and lavish forgiveness. And that also explains Jesus’ (even though he is God’s appointed judge) unusual preference for hanging around ‘sinners’. (That is my parentheses filled summary.)

We actually thought we’d been completely stood up for a while. So for half an hour, with no-one there, I was just chatting to my co-leader and thought I’d got out of it. Then two came, then two more. (I got a bit flustered wondering if I should start again when the second two arrived, but the night was getting away so I kept going.)

So far those who’ve come along are from Los Angeles, Brazil, Germany, Iran and Montreal and two from Australia. We’re loving the multiculturalness (that should be a word - multiculturalism wasn't working for me). Last week we heard all about life in Iran, from a girl who’s investigating Jesus because she’s never had the chance before. Then last night one of those who came late, and for the first time, was a bona fide rock star. He introduced himself as a “recording artist”, and one never knows quite what to make of that, but I have since done the googling, found his Wikipedia entry and website etc, and he’s seriously big - just not so much in Australia (I’d link it but I think that’s a breach of confidentiality). One of the things he once did was “tour” Europe with a preacher and interpret sermons into French. Now here he is.

It's so intriguing and so very interesting (which is probably tautology) hearing about what is going on in the lives of these people.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Introducing ...

My newest niece, Violet Elise, who made her arrival on 11/11/11. I am looking forward to meeting her at Christmas.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Even with the grace of God, that will be, and has been, me

I loved, loved, this article by Stanley Fish, who decided to write My Life Report.
If you regard each human interaction as an occasion for performance, your concern and attention will be focused on how well or badly you’re doing and not on the people you’re doing it with.


It may be unnecessary to say so, but this way of interacting or, rather, not interacting does not augur well for intimate relationships. If you characteristically withhold yourself, keep yourself in reserve, refuse to risk yourself, those you live with are not going to be getting from you what they need.


And what have I learned along the way? Three things, closely related. The first is that people are often in pain; their lives are shadowed by memories and anticipations of inadequacy, and they are always afraid that the next moment will bring disaster or exposure. You can see it in their faces, and that is especially true of children who have not yet learned how to pretend that everything is all right and who are acutely aware of the precariousness of their situations.

The second thing I have learned is that the people who are most in pain are the people who act most badly; the worse people behave, the more they are in pain. They’re asking for help, although the form of the request is such that they are likely never to get it.

The third thing I have learned follows from the other two. It is the necessity of generosity. I suppose it is a form of the golden rule: if you want them to be generous to you, be generous to them. The rule acknowledges the fellowship of fragility we all share. In your worst moments — which may appear superficially to be your best moments — what you need most of all is the sympathetic recognition of someone who says, if only in a small smile or half-nod, yes, I have been there too, and I too have tried to shore up my insecurity with exhibitions of pettiness, bluster, overconfidence, petulance and impatience. It’s not, “But for the grace of God that could be me”; it’s, “Even with the grace of God, that will be, and has been, me.”

Resting on God - A prayer

Picture from here.

- The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions

The thought of thine infinite serenity cheers me,
For I am toiling and moiling, troubled and distressed,
    but thou art for ever at perfect peace.
Thy designs cause thee no fear or care of unfulfilment,
    they stand fast as the eternal hills.
Thy power knows no bond,
    thy goodness no stint.
Thou bringest order out of confusion,
    and my defeats are thy victories:
The Lord God omnipotent reigneth.
I come to thee as a sinner with cares and sorrows,
    to leave every concern entirely to thee,
        every sin calling for Christ’s precious blood;
Revive deep spirituality in my heart;
Let me live near to the great shepherd,
    hear his voice, know its tones, follow its calls.
Keep me from deception by causing me to abide in the truth,
        from harm by helping me to walk in the power of the Spirit.
Give me intenser faith in the eternal verities,
    burning into me by experience the things I know;
Let me never be ashamed of the truth of the gospel,
    that I may bear its reproach,
        vindicate it,
        see Jesus as its essence,
        know in it the power of the Spirit.
Lord, help me, for I am often lukewarm and chill;
    unbelief mars my confidence,
    sin makes me forget thee.
Let the weeds that grow in my soul be cut at their roots;
Grant me to know that I truly live only when I live to thee,
        that all else is trifling.
Thy presence alone can make me holy, devout, strong and happy.
Abide in me, gracious God.

Jesus, my father, the CIA and me

This looks like an interesting book. I don't think I'm through yet with all the things I am going to do badly or get wrong in this life, at least partly as a result of not having had a father. But I do like that this book is described as "redemptive".
I would have given anything for my father’s love to not be a secret. Anything. A boy needs a father to show him how to be in the world. He needs to be given swagger, taught how to read a map so that he can recognize the roads that lead to life and the paths that lead to death, how to know what love requires, and where to find steel in the heart when life makes demands on us that are greater than we think we can endure. A young boy needs a father who tells him that life is a loaner, who helps him discover why God sent him to this troubled earth so he doesn’t die without having tried to make it better.

He may not know it, but from the moment he first glimpses his baby boy’s head crowning in the delivery room, a father makes a vow that with stumbling determination, he will try to get a few of these things right. Boys with fathers who keep their love undisclosed, go through life banging from guardrail to guardrail, trying to determine why our fathers kept their love nameless, as if ashamed.

We know each other when we meet.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The gospel of detachment in a land of plenitude

There are some fascinating passages in this book, Lost in Translation, by Eva Hoffman (which I am readying very slowly, you may have noticed). I can see why Tim Keller, with his bent towards cultural analysis, was referencing it in a sermon. Here's a recent passage I read. I particularly like the last paragraph:
Two decades later, when the Eastern religions vogue hits the counterculture, I think I understand the all-American despair that drives the new converts to chant their mantras in ashrams from San Francisco to Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The gospel of detachment is as well suited to a culture of excess as it is to a society of radical poverty. It thrives in circumstances in which one’s wants are dangerous because they are surely going to be deprived – or because they are pulled in so many directions that they pose a threat to the integrity, the unity of one’s self. Of course, wanting too much, wanting the wrong thing, wanting what you can’t have is one definition of the human condition; we all have to learn how to make some liveable compromise between the always insatiable self and the always insufficient reality principle. But America is the land of yearning, and perhaps nowhere else are one’s desires so wantonly stimulated; nowhere else is the compromise so difficult to achieve. Under the constant assaults of plenitude, it is difficult to agree to being just one person, and in order to achieve that simple identity, one may be driven to extreme paths. One path is to give in completely, to play the game for all it’s worth; another is to renounce desire completely – a solution my peers try for a while with such sincere and ineffective zeal. A third is to do both at the same time – to play the game and know that it’s maya. This is what many of the same peers try after they fail at material monkishness. Perhaps Money, in America, is a force so extreme as to become a religious force, a confusing deity, which demands either idolatry or a spiritual education.

For a long time, confronting the dangers both of self-division and of deprivation, I cultivate a rigorous renunciation. I suppose it serves me well. Like some visiting Indian swami, I learn to measure myself against no one and to feel at home everywhere. Not envying is the condition of my dignity, and I protect that dignity with my life. In a sense, it is my life – the only base I have to stand on. If I sometimes have to go around with a run in my stockings when I am in college, if I can’t afford the long trek home during Christmas recess, it doesn’t matter. I have my essential humanity, that essential humanity which I learned to believe in as a Jewish girl in Poland, and which I’ve now salvaged with the help of withdrawal and indifference. “Sometimes I see you with a steel rod running down the middle of your back,” a friend once tells me. He sees more than most.

My detachment would serve me even better if it were entirely genuine. It isn’t. Underneath my carefully trained serenity, there is a caldron of seething lost loves and a rage at the loss. And there is – for all that – a longing for a less strenuous way to maintain my identity and my pride. I want to gather experience with both hands, not only with my soul. Essential humanity is all very well, but we need the colours of our time and the shelter of a specific place. I cannot always be out on the heath – we exist in actual houses, in communities, in clothes – and occasionally, at some garden party amidst meaningless chat, or in my nearly empty dorm during a holiday break, I forget my ascetic techniques, and the desire for the comfort of being a recognizable somebody placed on a recognizable social map breaks in on me with such anguishing force that it scalds my spirit and beats it back into its hiding place.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Wednesday amusement

On communication

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.
- George Bernard Shaw

The hidden thoughts in other people’s heads are the great darkness that surrounds us.
- Theodore Zeldin, historian of conversation
(I took both of these from The School of Life facebook page. I'm so beyond tired this week, all I have is quotes.)

Glorify God with your grammar

I don't normally use this expression, and I don't really know the precise origins of it, but when I thought about it, I thought, well that's what we're always on about isn't it? - doing all things to the glory of God, and doing them as best we can? So then, write well to the glory of God.

(That said, I won't be taking up using this expression, and I was surprised to learn that "for Pete's sake", which I have been known to come out with in traffic, is a euphemism for "for Christ's sake", which means much the same as below, and was considered blasphemous (though there again, there are a good many things we actually do do "for Christ's sake" aren't there?).)

From here.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Melancholy is synonymous with beautiful

In the park where I play with my friends, there are winding paths that let us out onto the wider, more lucid avenues, and a weeping willow by the pond that is just about the most graceful thing I know: it’s so melancholy, and melancholy is synonymous with beautiful.
Eva Hoffman, Lost in Translation.

Heroic maidens

Why, there are maidens of heroic touch,
And yet they seem like things of gossamer
You'd pinch the life out of, as out of moths.
O, it is not loud tones and nothingness,
'Tis not the arms akimbo and large strides,
That make a woman's force. The tiniest birds,
With softest downy breasts, have passions in them
And are brave with love.

George Eliot
Felix Holt: The Radical, Chapter XLVI

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Christianity pure and simple

I wasn’t going to mention this, because I thought it would sound like a “ministry” announcement (setting aside for a moment the notion of all of life as ministry, as some things are more formally recognised as such) and it seems all too easy for blogs or facebook status updates to be thinly veiled ways of letting the world know you’re about such things. But then I thought, well if my identity is as a follower of Jesus, and that’s what’s ‘on my mind’, one would hope at least some of the time, then is it not a strange portrayal of my life to never mention any of it.

So, this week was my first go at co-leading a Simply Christianity course. Despite the fact that I used to work at Matthias Media, and for a time knew all about this course, I am fairly sure I have never actually done it. I was a little hesitant when asked, wondering whether I’d not do a good job, or might say something stupid that would turn people away. But then I realised that in thinking so I was actually giving myself too much credit. Sure I can be prepared and informed, pray for those coming, try to be friendly and social and not too weird, but beyond that, whether or not people encounter Jesus in a life-changing way is not really up to me. So, I said yes. And I am glad I did, because it’s refreshing and it’s a good reminder of what Christianity is all about and it’s good to see how the course works. And my co-leader used to be a chaplain/teacher for ten years and he was excellent on night one, so I can watch and learn.

This particular course is running off the end of a week-long community art exhibition at my church, that included other events. We had people sign up online for the course that nobody knew anything about, so we weren’t so sure what we in for, but the night went well. Two people are coming along because they just came by the art exhibition and heard about the course, so that's very exciting!

I am looking forward to how the next few weeks pan out. It feels a bit like the beginning of a great unknown adventure … (for me, but even more so for those coming).

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Love and solitude

Love is something more stern and splendid than mere kindness.
- CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain

One can acquire everything in solitude – except character.
- Stendhal

I "liked" The School of Life on facebook recently. Call it being "culturally relevant". It is Alain de Botton's philosophy lessons establishment in London where they have "sermons" and "Sunday services". Weird sort of comment contained therein. But they post interesting quotes.