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The Moral Importance of Foundation Garments

23 Dec

foundation-garments

It’s 23rd December, Christmas-Eve Eve, so naturally you would expect me to be writing about Christmassy things. And I was going to, honest. I even had the title worked out, “It wouldn’t be Christmas without…”. But then I got a new bra.

Yes, I know, that’s too much information. But it is relevant because it got me thinking about the (albeit not immediately obvious) similarities between brassieres and moral codes.

It’s been a while since I’ve had a new bra, and ages since I had an expensive, good-quality one, and I had forgotten how much of a difference it makes. The thing about elasticated undergarments, and moral codes, is that over time they have a tendency to grow slack. They are less restrictive, but also less supportive.

I noticed an astonishing difference as I ventured out into the world wearing my spanking new purchase. Some clever engineering goes into these bits of frippery; I felt positively cantilevered! I noticed that I held my head higher, and my shoulders straighter, too, the structured nature of my unmentionable reminding me of other areas that could do with a bit of improving, like posture.

On the first day of wearing the new nether-garment it did feel restrictive and unfamiliar, but by the second day it had become natural, to the extent that when I come to wash it, and have to wear one of my old ones, I will probably miss the new rigour.

I’m never one to leave an analogy unstretched, so bear with me as I opine that moral codes are not dissimilar. (By the way, if the language is more flowery than usual, the glass of rioja I just had seems to have gone right to my head.) Moral codes, like bras, have a tendency to loosen and stretch, without our necessarily noticing. They seem fine, but it’s only when you compare what they are supposed to be like that you notice how much things have slipped.

There was a comment on the Premier website* under an article on three-parent babies to the effect that in-vitro fertilization used to be controversial, particularly for Christians, but now nobody bats an eye. A comment in reply pointed out that this is exactly the point that the ‘slippery slope’ argument makes. Leaving aside that particular ethical quagmire, it’s an example of how things can become looser over time. If there’s something that shocked you years ago, or at least made you feel uncomfortable, and now you don’t even blink, it could be that you’ve become more mature, or worked through it – or it could be that you have grown slack, and not even noticed.

Of course, this is where the analogy reaches breaking point, because you don’t just go out and get a new moral code. A code to live by is probably less like a piece of underwear and more like a kitchen knife – once you find a good one, you keep it forever. However, kitchen knives need to be sharpened up from time to time, just as foundation garments need to be renewed. Talking to others who think deeply about moral issues, listening to sermons and lectures – challenging ones, not just pleasant homilies – and examining both your own behaviour and issues that you prefer not to think about are all ways of doing so, I would suggest.

So if an acquaintance thinks that something you habitually do is ethically questionable, don’t assume that automatically makes them wrong, judgemental, narrow-minded or all of the above. It may just be that your moral elastic has been through the washing machine** one too many times.

Happy Christmas!


* Don’t read comments on the Premier website. It is time you will never get back.
** Never wash your bra in the washing machine! Not even in a pillowcase or delicates bag. Always hand wash. Trust me.

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Learning about Albania

4 Oct

The results of the vote are in, and it was unanimous – all three of my readers want to hear about my summer in Albania rather than my adorable budgie or the wonders of digestive enzymes.

I’ve written about Albania before, more than once, and I don’t want to repeat myself or bore you, so I’ll break this down into things you see in Albania that you don’t see in Britain; things you don’t see in Albania that you do see in Britain; and things you, perhaps surprisingly, see in both. The summer feels like a long time ago now, but luckily for you, I kept notes 😉

Things you see in Albania20160812_084248

Goat droppings on the pavement. Our neighbour keeps goats, and walks them out to pasture every morning, and back every evening. They try to eat everything en route, but unfortunately their owner doesn’t take them close enough to our gate to eat the weeds growing there.

Kids out late. I may have mentioned this before, but Albanian children stay up very late. Finding a babysitter is a complete non-issue because the kids just come out with you, even in their buggies. They do take naps during the day, but I can’t help thinking that, cultural diversity aside, keeping kids up as long as adults is not an entirely good thing: they often look tired and act crabby. The idea of “Are all the bairnies in their beds? It’s past eight o’ clock” is just totally alien in Albania, however.

Mobile phone shops running out of sims. This one was quite annoying. All the mobile phone shops are company-specific – you don’t have the likes or Carphone Warehouse or Fones4U – but even so, you’d expect them to have sim cards at all times, right? Or at least to be quite embarrassed about not having any. But no: “We don’t have any sim cards just now. Come back on Monday.” Fortunately, all the mobile phone companies were doing a big push to sell sims to the emigrants returned for the holidays, so there were plenty of other companies to get a sim from. One company even had a buy one, get one free offer on every sim purchase (why?) so I ended up with a surfeit of sims.

Things you don’t see in Albania

Dogs being walked. This isn’t because there aren’t any dogs in Albania, but because the three types you generally see are stray dogs (far fewer than there used to be), guard dogs, which are usually chained up and always stay in the grounds of the house they are protecting, and – a new addition – handbag dogs, which are carried around in people’s arms. I don’t believe I have ever seen a dog out for a walk in Albania, on a lead or just at heel. I have been rather too close for comfort to a guard dog, though. Our relatives’ dog, Çufi, dreams of sinking his teeth into my sweet flesh, and this time he almost managed it, before my mother-in-law slammed the gate shut. My scream could be heard throughout the neighbourhood.

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Drunk people at beer festivals. I didn’t even notice this until the third or fourth day of the beer festival in Lushnje. There was only one type of beer (it was really a “friendship festival” sponsored by Elbar beer) and everyone just got a pint, or a soft drink for the kids, and maybe something to eat, and sat listening to the music and chatting. No one got drunk. No one. There’s not a lot of public drunkenness in Albania anyway, except at weddings, but it was strange to be at an alcohol festival where no one was drinking to excess. Imagine that in Glasgow!

(Personally I’m not a fan of beer, so I took the opportunity to introduce Albania to the concept of shandy. I don’t think it’s going to take off.)

Things you, surprisingly, do see in Albania

Cycle lanes. I remember while I was preparing for my DPSI exam a couple of years ago discussing the best way to say ‘cycle lane’, as it was something I had never come across in Albania. Now the centre of Lushnje has a cycle lane running right through it and, what is more, people were using it! In fact the whole of the central square has been made a no-car zone, and it’s lovely. (You can spot the red cycle lane in the photo above.)

Toffee apples. I associate these with frosty nights, Hallowe’en and bonfires, rather than with sultry Mediterranean evenings, but I don’t suppose there’s any good reason why Albania shouldn’t enjoy them just as much as we do. (I use ‘we’ in a generic sense – I hate fruit.)

Fried pizza. I thought this was purely a Scottish institution (served with chips, of course, because a deep-fried pizza doesn’t contain enough grease), but I suppose I shouldn’t really be surprised that such a delicacy also exists in Albania; they are awfully fond of frying things, often in gallons of oil.

I always seem to learn something new when I go to Albania, and usually not just about the cuisine. The rigmarole over the water supply in our house in Lushnje (two pumps in two different, locked locations, a valve on the roof and a stopcock half-buried in the yard – not fun) gave me a greater appreciation of the running water system we have here. In fact, our street might get proper running water before next summer, which would be wonderful!

I also learned to hold my possessions a bit more lightly. That’s already wearing off, since I live in a society where ownership is very clearly demarcated and closely guarded, but I do appreciate the Albanian willingness to lend and share, and not to care too much when something is lost or broken.

I was also reminded of the value of boredom. There’s a lot of waiting around in Albania; it’s just part of life. In the summer there are also times when it’s too hot to do anything, too hot even to sleep, so you just lie around. After a while, a bit of boredom opens up areas of your mind that lie dormant when you’re constantly busy or entertained, and that’s a good thing, especially if you work in a creative field. As well as getting on with the novel I’m working on (The Gates of Janus), I polished off a wee short story while I was there as well, which might not have happened if I didn’t have a lot of time just staring into the distance and dreaming.

So there’s your annual report on Albania. I can’t promise not to bore you about my budgie in future, but if you’re lucky something might occur to me that is interesting to a slightly wider audience 😉

A new decoration in Lushnje's park

Rio’s Hug

10 Aug

This blog post is simply going to direct you to another blog post, on Premier Christianity‘s website. But no, I’m not being lazy, because I wrote that post too.

If you have seen the statue of Christ the Redeemer on your TV during the Olympics, and want to hear my musings about its significance, and how it connects to the Games, please do have a wee read:

Christ the Redeemer: Why Rio’s statue is the true God of the Olympics

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Photo: Paul Mannix

The compassionate embrace includes everyone, from Olympic athletes to drug dealers, from top politicians to favela kids.

Good Friday Thoughts

25 Mar

Good Friday is an odd one. It’s very solemn and sombre for Christians because we’re essentially pretending (by way of memorial) that Jesus is dead, even though we know that he has been risen for some time now. It’s an opportunity for ecumenical events (meaning joint with different kinds of churches), during which people tiptoe awkwardly around the fact that they know very little of their companions’ practice of faith or the vocabulary that accompanies it (communion/Eucharist/mass/Lord’s Supper; priest and clergy vs minister and leadership team etc.), even though it’s the same faith they’re practising. At post-service snacks, some enthusiastically scoff hot cross buns while others, who are fasting, quietly don’t. A strange time, but a bit of disorientation can be good to snap you out of your usual life and help you remember what this Easter lark is all about, anyway (and it’s not chocolate bunnies or the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, as a historically and etymologically illiterate Facebook meme would have us believe).

It’s an even stranger one than usual this year, because Good Friday (the memorial of the crucifixion) lands on the same day as the memorial of the Annunciation (when the angel announced to Mary that she would give birth to Jesus), meaning that (if you’re in a church that takes note of these things) we’re celebrating Jesus’ arrival as a baby whilst also mourning his death. I had only recently found out about the tradition that the Annunciation and the crucifixion were both on 25th March (to keep things nice and neat), so it’s quite serendipitous for me that in the year I find this out, the memorial of the crucifixion (which depends on the lunar calendar, thus a literally moveable feast) falls on the anniversary.

(There’s also a superstition that their coincidence is supposed to presage national disaster, such as the death of a monarch. Given how many famous people have already died in 2016, that wouldn’t be terribly surprising – but let’s hope it’s only as true as superstition usually is.)

Anyway, the article that drew my attention to this nice syncronicity is very well written and interesting, with lots of lovely pictures and (if you keep going to the end) a brilliant poem by John Donne called, rather unimaginatively, Upon the Annunciation and the Passion Falling upon One Day – so I will simply link to it so that you can enjoy it:

This doubtful day of feast or fast – Clerk of Oxford

Happy Easter!

The Stay-at-Home Missionary

28 Feb

It’s not often that I am moved to blog about a sermon I hear at church (though it does occasionally happen). Today we had a visiting speaker, Aaron Elder (who, despite his name, was almost unbearably young), and some of the things he said particularly struck me. That makes it sound as if our regular pastor’s sermons are not striking, which is unfair. They are often excellent, usually challenging, and if they suffer from using the phrase “what would it look like” more often than is warranted by normal use of the English language, well, so do Aaron’s. But maybe I was just ready to hear what Aaron had to say today – or, more accurately, what God had to say through him, because in any really good sermon the mouthpiece fades into the background.

Anyway, Aaron’s sermon was mainly about missionaries, and how we are all supposed to be missionaries. He dropped in some quotes by big hitters (he was almost apologetic by the time he invoked Kierkegaard; I was ready to cheer) and one of them was from Charles Spurgeon:

Every Christian is either a missionary or an imposter.

Of course this is hardly a new concept. I’ve heard any number of times the idea that we can’t all go abroad to be missionaries, but we can and should all spread God’s message of love where we are. I probably have a slightly different angle on this from most people, having been a missionary abroad; when asked what our mental picture of a missionary is (as a precursor to telling us we’re all missionaries), I think about my former friends and colleagues – although I have to admit that this image fights for space with the stereotypical image of a middle-aged woman in sensible clothes and besandaled socks.)

Anyway, when we were all being encouraged to think of where our ‘mission field’ is, I was, not for the first time, thinking “I don’t have any colleagues. I don’t have many friends, and many of the ones I do have are overseas.  I see my neighbours rarely. I don’t have a mission field.” Most people have to deal with a lot of people every day, whether they want to or not, but my work is just me and a computer, and that’s the way I like it. Even when I’m interpreting Albanian, I’m only supposed to be a human version of Google Translate (albeit a more accurate one); I’m not allowed to interject my own thoughts, any more than a Babel fish does.

However, while I indulged in this none-too-positive thinking, God* suddenly drew my attention to the fact that in a few weeks I’ll be speaking to over 200 people about St Patrick. In the week of St Patrick’s Day I’m visiting a school, talking to the whole of S1. Then I’m giving a talk on “Who was the real St Patrick?” at Govanhill Neighbourhood Centre the same week, on Friday 18th March. Neither of these talks are going to be evangelistic – I’m not luring people in and then preaching hellfire and damnation. But I will be speaking about another missionary, good old Pat, and mentioning why he went off to serve the Irish – which was of course because of his belief in God, and that God had sent him.** So while I may not have colleagues, or even many friends (don’t shed any tears, I do have some, and they are lovely!), I have a remarkably privileged opportunity that most people don’t get. Of course, I’ve also got my books, read even by people I’ve never met (so I’m told), so there’s a lovely, arm’s-length mission field – a Christian introvert‘s dream 😉

Where am I going with this? Nowhere really, except to observe that sometimes things can become new and fresh even when we’ve heard them a hundred time, and that perhaps even I have a mission field, even if it is limited in time, or extended in virtual distance.

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*How do I know / why do I think it was God? It’s hard to be 100% sure when it comes to divine communications, but they do happen (if you’re a Christian), and they come in a number of different forms, from the unsettlingly supernatural to the surprisingly mundane. In this case, while mundane, the subject came to my mind unbidden, and in a completely different light from how I had seen it before, while I was in a prayerful, open attitude. That doesn’t prove anything, but I just thought I would explain since “God spoke to me” can be a rather confusing and ambiguous statement for the uninitiated.

** In his case it was a vivid dream in which he received a letter from the Irish – a little closer to the supernatural end of the scale.

Forgiving the unforgiveable

17 Nov

My new book on Patrick of Ireland is subtitled The Boy Who Forgave because what struck me most when I was researching his story was that Patrick was prepared to go back to the country where he had been trafficked and enslaved, not reluctantly or under compulsion, but with a heart full of compassion for the Irish.

The atrocities in Beirut and especially Paris have been all over the news and social media since Friday, and although the situation is not the same (the Irish raiders who carried Patrick off were no ISIS), I can’t help wondering how people would react if someone who had lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks then devoted most of their adult life to serving and spreading the word of God in the land the attackers came from. I expect that there would be some ready to question their motives, or their sanity. Our society tends to see forgiveness as weakness, but on the contrary, I think it takes immense strength, especially when it flies in the face of public opinion.

Patrick front cover

Anyway, all of that is just a prelude to saying that Patrick of Ireland: The Boy Who Forgave is now available in bookshops and online in Britain (you’ll have to wait a little longer in the USA) and tells a moving and thought-provoking story about a truly inspiring man whose life was anything but straightforward. Kidnap, shipwreck, near-starvation and attempted poisoning were just some of the things poor old Pat had to put up with, but his trust in God was unshakeable.

This is the stripped-back story of Patrick, relying on the most secure evidence and missing out the legendary bits that got added on much later. No snakes, shamrocks or breastplates, I’m afraid, but plenty of kings with unpronounceable names, druids, and high adventure.

Book launch

If you will be in Glasgow on Saturday 5th December, you are warmly invited to the book launch for Patrick of Ireland at 2pm in the private room of O’Neills Irish pub, Sauchiehall Street (right at the end of the street, almost at the motorway). If not, please do buy it from your local bookshop, buy online, or suggest to your local library that they get it in.

The Great British Turn Off

31 Aug

I understand that the 2015 series of the ever-popular Great British Bake Off is now underway. Or will be shortly. Or was recently. I’m not exactly sure of the details because I have never been the least bit tempted to watch it. That’s not because I don’t like baking. In fact, I love baking and am well known amongst my circle of acquaintances for my excellent cakes and biscuits. I do so much baking that my little niece thinks “recipe” means “a book that tells you all the things what you need in a cake”. So why do I dislike the Bake Off?

Until recently, I explained that to myself and others by saying that it was the competitive element that put me off. Baking isn’t supposed to be a competitive sport, it’s an enjoyable pastime. When lots of people bring baked goods along to an event, the fun is in trying and enjoying all of them, not in declaring one the winner and rejecting the others. But that doesn’t really explain it. I mean, I don’t object to the kind of baking competitions where you make the goodies at home and then take them along to be judged. I’ve even entered competitions like that in the past before, and written a heart-warming, tear-jerking and fairly well-remunerated short story for a woman’s magazine on the subject.

I could say it’s the stupidity of baking in a tent. (You need a constant supply of water and electricity, and no wind blowing your icing sugar around so let’s hold it – in a tent! Ideal!) Or I could object to the hosts or judges. But actually my problem with it clicked when I read an article on introversion and it mentioned baking as an activity introverts can use to recharge. That’s it! Baking is a solitary, peaceful activity. If you make it into a big public thing, with everyone shouting and making noise and peering over your shoulder, it becomes a trial to endure, not a source of relaxation. My objection to The Great British Bake Off, it seems, is that I’m an introvert.

(As an aside, it’s also a slight quibble I have with the Macmillan World’s Biggest Coffee Morning. It’s an excellent cause, but I have to disagree with their statement that “cake tastes better together”. Cake most definitely tastes better alone.)

It’s normal for writers to be introverts – lots of deep thoughts, internal monologue and spending time alone with computers, paper, pens and books. (I love stationery – not sure if that’s connected.) But it’s not always easy to tell who’s an introvert and who isn’t, unless you know them well. I can be quite the social butterfly, in fact, meeting new people, remembering their names and making amusing small talk, but I couldn’t do it all day. In fact, if I spend all day with large groups of people, even people I like, I will be ready to burst into tears about nothing at all by the evening. I need time by myself to chill and recover, doing things like reading, watching TV, and baking.

The article that mentioned baking has a great explanation of introversion described in terms of mobile phone batteries. The basic gist is that it’s not that introverts can’t do outgoing, social things, it’s just that it drains the batteries, which then need to be recharged. It’s a good article and I would recommend it. I would also recommend that you try my baking if you ever get the chance, and read my writing (naturally). But don’t stand over my shoulder while I’m doing it, giving me marks out of ten. This is not the Great British Bake Off.

Introverts Unite

Albania 2015 – just the best bits

8 Aug

I have recently returned from my other reality, aka Albania, where I have a different name, a different language, different clothes (well it is 20 degrees hotter) and to some extent a different personality. I was going to blog about how strange it is to suddenly be bad at things that you are usually good at – things like baking, dancing and writing, in my case – because you’re in a different culture where all the rules are changed.

However, I feel like I have encountered quite enough negativity recently, with people talking down Albania, or Scotland, or just generally moaning about how hard life is, so I don’t want to add to it. However hard life is, and whatever problems there are in both my countries, I had a fantastic month, so I will choose the share the best parts. If that makes you nauseous, look away now.

1. I went to a museum in Lushnjë where I was the only person there, so I got a personal guided tour, and unlike most museums where you are told very firmly not to touch, this museum positively encourages you to! I was handed a two-and-a-half-thousand-year-old perfume pot (which I took extreme care not to drop) as if it were just a mug of coffee, and the tour guide passed me an 18th century sword to hold while he took a phone call. For a history nut like me, it was amazing!

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Look at the colour of that sea!

2. The sea was beautiful, and so different from the North Sea and the Atlantic that I grew up with. It’s so clear you can see the tiny fish, and it’s warm (or no colder than cool, at worst) so you can get right in there without fear of losing a toe to frostbite. My eyes are the colour of the sea and, bizarrely, while they are North Sea blue-grey here in Scotland, they were Mediterranean blue-green the entire time I was in Albania.

3. Being outdoors so much was great. I like being outdoors in Scotland, too, but there are not that many days you can do it without suffering from mild exposure, if not from the temperature then from the wind. In Albania (and Greece) we ate outside (breakfast, lunch and supper), socialised outside, went to outdoor bars, and I even slept outside, on the balcony outside my room, when the temperature got a bit too ridiculous. Waking up to blue sky and swallows overhead sets you up for a great day.

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My bed on the balcony

4. My husband gets irritated by this one, but I love being mistaken for an Albanian! I talk with an accent of course, but millions of Albanians live abroad, so they pick up accents too. Sometimes people have a little debate in front of me about whether I’m foreign or not! It’s very funny, and quite reassuring when I have an Albanian exam coming up later this year.

5. I enjoyed bonding with my mother-in-law over telenovele, the überdramatic soap operas they show in Albania. They used to be mainly from South America, but now there’s a glut of Turkish ones, which are a bit more serious, and very good. The latest was Diamantë dhe Dashuri (Diamonds and Love). There’s lots of mortal peril and complicated love triangles / hexagons, and I am happy to throw myself right in there for as long as I’m staying. They also don’t go on forever, like British soap operas, so you’re not in danger of losing your whole life to them.

6. I also enjoyed dressing up. This can be a hassle if you’re not in the right mood, but I was on holiday so I was very happy to only take my prettiest clothes, and then to wear all the new pretty clothes that my mother-in-law had collected for me too. Most of the time in Britain I slob around in jeans and a t-shirt, so it’s fun to take a break from that and wear heels and dresses. I didn’t wear trousers for the entire holiday, and it was with great reluctance that I put them back on for the flight home.

7. The ice cream was so cheap! Lots of things are cheaper in Albania, but ice cream is so expensive here in Britain that it’s really noticeable. In Albania it ranged from about 30p for a cheap one to £1.30 for an individual tub of Skandal, the equivalent of Häagen Dazs. My young nieces, who accompanied me for the first part of the holiday, weren’t used to the heat so I insisted that we stabilised their temperature with regular applications of ice cream. They didn’t seem to mind.

8. Catching up with friends was a highlight – and not just friends in Albania, but those in Greece and Italy too! Because almost everyone in Albania has relatives abroad, standard mobile phone packages include overseas minutes. For about £8 for the whole month I got hundreds of minutes to Europe, as well as huge amounts of data and messages. Not bad.

9. This one is from Greece rather than Albania. I stayed in a hotel with a pool on my way back, since I had to spend a night in Corfu. (It was the Anita, in case you’re interested, and it’s very good and extremely friendly, though not as handy for the airport as the Arion.) One of my favourite memories is standing up to my neck in the pool, alone, watching brightly coloured dragonflies playing over the water. Idyllic.

Sunny enough for bananas!

Sunny enough for bananas!

10. Sunshine. Sorry, but it has to be said. In Scotland we throw ourselves onto the nearest patch of grass whenever the sun comes out, because who knows how long it will last? In Albania you can predict that it will last roughly from the start of May to the end of September. It was sunny every day, it was hot every day, it was cloudless all but two days. It was paradise.

My mother-in-law will hopefully be visiting in October, her first time in Scotland, so it will be interesting to get her perspective. Maybe she will see wonderful things that I don’t notice because I’m so used to them. I have a nasty feeling that she won’t like it at all, actually, but until she casts her verdict – let’s stay positive. 🙂

The Fringe Benefits of Christianity

12 Apr

As I stood gabbing in church yesterday, as I do each Sunday after the service, my thoughts turned to how very convenient and helpful it often is to be a churchgoer. What had brought it to mind was my need to get some photocopies certified by a “suitable person” in order to open what is apparently the most security-conscious ISA in the world. Suitable people, by their definition, include ministers of religion and doctors. Naturally our church has a minister of religion, and for some reason we have more healthcare professionals than the nearest hospital, so it wasn’t a problem.

I started to wonder, though, how much more difficult it would have been if I didn’t attend a church. I mean, it’s one thing if you live in a nice middle class area peopled by doctors and teachers , or your social circle is packed with civil servants and lawyers, but what if that’s not true of you, and you don’t have a church? Obviously it’s still possible – we don’t live in a society segregated by class or wealth a la In Time, but surely it most be more of a hassle? Then I got to watching the little children tearing round the church as if they owned the place, which in a sense they do, and thought that maybe my childhood would have been poorer without that, too.

So here is my list the benefits of Christianity, apart from the obvious, intrinsic ones.* Some of these will apply to other religions and / or clubs and societies; this isn’t a competition, just some of the handy things I have noticed in my many years as a practising Christian. (And yes, being a practising Christian does necessitate going to church, unless you live on a desert island or North Korea or the like. You can’t be part of the Body of Christ on your own.)

* For the avoidance of doubt, the obvious, intrinsic benefits of Christianity are the salvation of your soul, the forgiveness of your sins, a relationship with God and so on.

Signing documents

As above. Churches are supposed to be the best places in Britain for social integration, providing an opportunity for members to meet and become friends with people of different social classes or ethnic backgrounds. So if you need a doctor or teacher to sign your passport form, you’ll probably find one there, along with the obligatory minister of religion.

Making friends

It can be extremely hard to make friends in modern, western society. It’s fine at school and university, but after that opportunities are a bit more limited. You’ve got work, of course (although I work from home, so that’s out) and maybe the gym or choir or whatever else you’re into, but it can take a long time to make real friendships. You can’t do the five-year-old “let’s be friends!” thing. You’ve got to invite the other person for coffee or similar, and then actually find the time to do it, before you can move tentatively up the friendship ladder until you’re in and out of each other’s homes and laughing about shared jokes. Then, if you move home, you’ve got to do it all again.

If you go to church, you have a ready made pseudo-friendship group (well we have to be nice to each other – it’s in the Bible), and one where it’s very easy and natural to develop real friendships. Of course, some churches are friendlier than others, but they all have times when you can all meet up (Sunday services) as well as, usually, mid-week meetings of smaller groups. If you’re in a small group with someone you get on with, you’ve already had coffee together several times, and got to know a fair bit about each other, before either of you has to make the first move to arrange to do something socially. (As you can imagine, the same principle applies to dating, too. In fact, people have been known to go to church just to get a girlfriend, St Augustine included. That is not a recommendation.)

I have lived in lots of different places, in the UK and Albania, and my life would have been vastly more lonely if I hadn’t been able to find a group of people to hang around with, from the very first Sunday. I have fond memories of kafe dhe llafe (coffee and chat) after church at Guri i Themellit in Tirana, and most of the people I know in Lushnje that I’m not related to (and some that I am) are from the church Kisha e Dishepuejve – including my husband, whom I met there.

There is a problem with Christians having only or mostly Christian friends. It can give you a rather cushioned view of the world, if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor, and making friends outside church is something Christians should work at. But I would respectfully submit that a good part of the problem is not insularity, but the sheer ease of making friends within the church rather than outwith.

Freedom for kids

I haven’t been a child for a long time, so I could be wrong about this, but I can’t think of many places where kids can socialise in a large building (church, church hall, graveyard) with a number of kindly adults keeping one eye out for their welfare, but basically letting them get on with it. Most of the adults that kids have contact with are either related to them, or being paid to spend time with them. Given the kind of news stories we’ve had so much of recently, you could be forgiven for thinking that’s because everyone else is a paedophile. I just think it must be healthy for kids to have social contact with normal adults in a non-professional setting.

I think it’s also probably good for their self-esteem and sense of responsibility to be part of a community that goes from birth right up to old age (the oldest lady in our church is well into her nineties). The children sometimes take part in services or do a Christmas play, and are a real part of the church. Their talents are encouraged and their efforts are praised. All that probably makes it easier for someone to turn into a well-adjusted, responsible citizen later on.

Freedom from kids

The other side of it is that kids tend to disappear to Sunday school for at least part of the service, giving their parents some much-needed time off – although they do have to spend it singing and listening to a sermon, like it or not.

Music practice

And not just music practice, but tech practice, public speaking practice, childcare practice and so on. There are lots of activities to get involved with at a church, because everything in the church that isn’t done by the paid staff (usually only the minister) is done by the people who attend. Yes, some of it may be a chore, but some of it presents excellent opportunities. When else, apart from in a school, are you going to get the chance to perform on your musical instrument regularly, in a group of other musicians, even if you’re not yet of professional quality? Where will the nervous newbie to public speaking have the chance to perform readings or short talks to a fairly supportive audience? Where will you get the chance to be trained (for free) on a sound desk or projection system? There may be other places, but church is certainly one of them.

Elder care

Opportunities for socialising can be particularly difficult to come by if you’re elderly, especially if you don’t keep well or are unsteady on your legs. Church is a great place to mix with people other than your own family, but it’s also a place where people will go out of their way to help you socialise – or at least, my church is, and I assume most others do the same. People will arrange lifts to help you get to church, check up on you if you don’t show up for a while, and even visit you in hospital. Even if it’s only the pastor visiting because it’s his job, it’s a good remedy for isolation. If you’re planning to be old and infirm, it’s probably a good idea to join a church before you do so.

Understanding literature

One that’s dear to my heart, although I realise that not everyone will consider this an important fringe benefit of Christianity: a background in the Bible, gleaned from many sermons as well as private study, will help you to understand references in older literature – and there are tonnes of them! Writers like Dickens and Trollope would throw in biblical quotes and allusions without ever pointing them out or explaining them, because in those days every educated person in Britain, and most uneducated ones, had at least an acquaintance with the teachings and stories of Christianity. Even into the early twentieth century, novelists, short story writers and poets would pepper their work with Christian references, ironically or otherwise, and just expect people to keep up.

These days, when most people in the UK do not have a working knowledge of Christianity (as evidenced by this particularly egregious piece of drivel, saying both that Jesus did not exist and that his bones have been found), these references can pass by uncomprehended or even unnoticed, which robs the works of some of their richness. If you’ve spent your formative years in a church, you’re much more likely both to pick up on them and to understand the point the writer is making. Of course, that doesn’t help you at all with the fact that nineteenth-century writers also had a tendency to throw in lines in Latin or French without translating them. Sorry about that.

None of this is intended to be an advertisement, by the way. Naturally I would heartily recommend faith in Christ to anyone, but due to his being the way (to heaven), the truth (about everything) and the life (to the full) rather than for the reasons listed above. However, if you are a churchgoer, maybe these will give you reason to be even more grateful. And if you have got out of the habit – maybe you should get back into it.

Serving Others

23 Feb

This post will seem strangely familiar to any followers who also attend my church. (Hello, Sheila!) It is actually a reflection I wrote for Adelaide Place Baptist Church, but it seemed fairly popular so I thought I’d pinch it for my blog, too. (NB: It’s not plagiarism if it’s your own work 😉 )

It’s from the series Sacred Rhthyms, whereby church members start the day with a Bible reading sent by email, pause to say the Lord’s Prayer at or around noon, and theoretically in the evening reflect on the day. I always forget that bit. On Sundays, instead of a Bible reading there is a short meditation or homily, and that is where the the piece below comes from. Enjoy.

Cinderella, by Anne Andersonn

Serving Others

If the story of Cinderella teaches us anything, it’s that it is better to be served than to serve. Cinderella was rescued from a life of drudgery by her prince, who took her to live in the palace – where, presumably, other girls did exactly the same work that Cinderella had been doing in her home. And that’s the happy ending.

Things aren’t like that in the Kingdom of Heaven. Our ‘prince’ left the palace and came “not to be served, but to serve others, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” That’s our happy ending, and it’s also the example we’re to emulate.

It’s easy to feel put-upon, especially when family, church or work seems to be making a lot of demands on our time, and no one seems to recognise how busy or tired we are. It would be much easier to step back, relax and let other people do the serving. However, our God is a God who not only asks us to serve others, but who regards it as an act of worship. A poem by George Herbert, called The Elixir, says,

Teach me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
To do it as for Thee.

A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
Makes that and the action fine.

This week, when we get the opportunity to serve others, let’s take it as willingly as we can manage, and remember that it’s not just others we’re serving – it’s also Christ.