Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Mirror: Shelf-righteousness

I imagine it came with a book which was gifted to me; most likely from my mum. She often buys interesting books for me and they occasionally come with a bookmark from the store where the purchase was made. This particular bookmark has a list of words on it; book related words. Shelf-righteous* is one of them. Perhaps you thought I was either inventing a word or had accidentally added an 'h'. Not so.

I don't want to boast, especially as I just read Jeremiah 9:23, 24, but I do feel like I have a pretty special collection of books. I suppose many readers feel the same way, so why, I hear you say, do I claim to have a better collection than others? Why am I making such a shelf righteous declaration? And how is my feeling of superiority about my personal library a mirror?

I'll deal with the latter first. What a person reads is a reflection of the person. We normally chose to read books which are 'our cup of tea', so our literary tastes say something about us. I'm being shelf righteousness because I reckon my collection is pretty impressive even though it's small...very small, in fact. I don't usually keep books as I haven't had anywhere to keep them for some time now. Books come and go.

What's so good about my small collection? It's eclectic. At the moment, I'm reading a futuristic action thriller, a Discworld fantasy, and book about a neurosurgeon who was in a coma for a week and now believes in the existence of the 'soul.' Prior to that I read Enid Blyton's Secret Seven, Eric Weiner's The Geography of Bliss and a time travel, body jumping mystery called The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. Also in my library are many classics. Books by unknowns and books by very well-knowns. Books about all sorts of subjects, set in all sorts of places with all sorts of genres, styles, and themes. Truth be told though, it's not better or worse than other one else's library.

I was recently ask why I read books. It's a good question which I think boils down to three things: education, entertainment and inspiration. For example when I saw Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander sitting on shelf and I read the subtitle: "a neurosurgeon's journey into the afterlife," I had to grab it. And the following quote from page 9 sealed it: "My experience showed me that the death of the body and the brain are not the end of consciousness, that human experience continues beyond the grave. More important, it continues under the gaze of a God who cares..." Clearly, this book will educate, entertain and inspire me.

I'm going to finish with one of my favourite quotes about reading, but before that I want to share a snippet from a book I recently read...for the second time. The subtitle of Eric Weiner's The Geography of Bliss is "the grumpiest man on the planet goes in search of the happiest place in the world." Here is a tiny sample of Weiner's philosophical conclusion. "Money matters, but less than we think and not in the way we think. Family is important. So are friends. Envy is toxic. So is excessive thinking. Beaches are optional. Trust is not. Neither is gratitude."

I'm not well at the time of writing this blog. I have the dreaded man flu of which I have previously written. (Exactly four years ago as it turns out) Energy and inspiration are low, but books are helping me through by assisting the passage of time while I rest (I'm not a fan of too much rest) and by providing the topic and many of the words for this post.

"The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read." (Anon)

*Shelf-righteous: the feeling of superiority about one's bookshelf

Saturday, May 16, 2020

A Dog's Eye: Opportunity and Choice

Today we were back in the House; God's House. For the first time in six weeks we were able to meet together at church for a gathering which perhaps some of us had begun to take for granted prior to COVID-19. The atmosphere was one of great celebration and excitement.

In keeping with COVID-19 safety advice, the auditorium and the adjoining cafe had been re arranged. Less seats, and not more than two together, in the former, and none at all in the latter. We queued for coffee (not me personally because I don't drink coffee) on crosses marked on the floor and took our caffeinated refreshments outside where we could maintain social distancing.

During the period of 'church by video' we also continued to meet in our small groups which we call Connect groups. We did this via Zoom. If you had shares in Zoom before COVID-19 you are among the winners in the world's worst pandemic in a hundred years. 

Interestingly, when we moved outside, regular Zoom participants didn't come, and those who had either completely or pretty much completely avoided the Zoom sessions were back with a bang. COVID-19 has provided an opportunity for people to evaluate what is important in their lives. The choices we made in response to the restrictions placed upon us by government fiat may have lasting consequences in the 'new normal'. Or not.

Will the lock down period, and what we had to do because some choices had been removed, be seen as an aberration which we should build a bridge over? Or will it be seen as a course correction for lives which had become unbalanced and devoid of gratitude?

I was initially upset by the closure of gymnasiums. My thrice or four times a week visit to the gym had become a staple of my routine. I saw it as necessary and would only drop a planned session if absolutely necessary. In the first week of no gym, I worked out in the stairwell of our apartment block. My wife and I then decided to go for a walk together in the evenings. This walk turned in to a workout which included interval training and body weight workouts.

What these evening exercise sessions also gave us was invaluable time together to talk. Now we're not just working on our fitness together, we're working on our relationship. However, this is maintenance, not surgery because we are already remarkably in sync. This time of talking and discussing issues keeps us on the same page. It is making us healthier and happier.

We chose this. I chose to do this with her, not alone and it was a great decision. I enjoy this time we have so much , I've decided not to not return to the gym.

This is just one example of a course correction brought about by COVID-19. I think almost everyone will have done this to some extent because life is all about opportunities and choices. Wisdom is required both to recognize opportunity and to make good choices in response. I believe many people have done, are doing exactly that. The rest will carry on, blind and ignorant to the things which really matter; to those eternal treasures which characterize the kingdom of Heaven.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

The Mirror: Failure

Saturday night in our home is family movie night. We take turns selecting a film, which we agreed beforehand we would either like, love or hate without criticizing the person who chose it. For my wife and daughter, I provide a selection to help them choose. (Yes, I know this means that I am in effect choosing the movie, but you're missing the point.)

Last week we watched Evan Almighty which we all enjoyed for the laughs as well as the positive message about obeying God and trusting him even when you don't feel like, when people around you don't get it or when the circumstances seem to dictate that your trust has been misplaced.

This week we watched All Saints starring John Corbett of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame. Also based on a true story, although much more closely aligned to the actual characters and events than Evan Almighty, All Saints is the name of a church which is about to be closed because it isn't financially viable. It only has a handful of members, so the decision has been made to sell it. John Corbett plays Michael Spurlock, the Anglican minister sent to All Saints to oversee its closure.

A large number of Kareni refugees turn up at the church, needing help and declaring themselves Anglicans. Spurlock feels he has to do all he can to help them. One night, he hears God telling him to save the church by turning it into a farm.

The film has a happy ending, but perhaps not what you would expect. I found myself again reflecting on how the world measures success compared with how God measures it. The truth is that what looks like a failure can actually be a great success. What looks and feels like suffering and hardship can be achieving a positive work of renewal. What feels like a waste of time for you can bear great fruit for someone else, and perhaps not until much further down the track.

All Saints church wasn't making money, but God wasn't even remotely concerned with that. His goal was to break down prejudice, build a community and do some healing work on individual hearts. God told Evan to build an ark, but it wasn't about the ark; it was about shaping Evan's character, transforming him through an extraordinary experience into a better man. However, sometimes the experiences don't need to be extraordinary. To the teachable soul, even mundane occurrences contain revelation.

We humans are rebellious by nature, but even our recalcitrance, our resistance, our lack of humility, can be used by God for our good and his glory. God's plans don't get thwarted by our stubbornness. He doesn't get surprise or shocked by what we do or don't do. He never says "I didn't see that one coming."

Our safe place is complete dependence on him. The words of the old hymn are ringing in my head "Trust and obey, for there's no other way..." When we do this, it does not matter what the situation looks like or how we feel about it, it's okay because God is good. Everything happens the way it is supposed to, when it is supposed to because God is sovereign.

Evan Baxter and Michael Spurlock both discovered this truth, and you can too. Just listen.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

A Dog's Eye: The 'Rona dance

There's a particular way people move around the kitchen so as to avoid bumping into each other, thus averting spillages and other accidents, and generally respecting people's space. I call it the kitchen dance. People who live with other people get very good at it. In families and shared homes, people quickly learn the moves.

As a writer I am a keen observer of human behaviour, but lately my surreptitious surveillance has been focused on people's actions in supermarket aisles and at the checkouts. 

A new dance has now hit the polished floors of our grocery emporiums: the social distancing disco. Most people are moving differently now. Instead of excusing themselves to reach in front of someone who is standing and deciding, people now wait. And I'm one of those people. We're moving around like we think other people are infectious. Sliding, shuffling, shifting position, speeding up and slowing down to avoid possible contagion. Our assumption is that any one of our fellow shoppers carries COVID-19.

The atmosphere in the supermarket has definitely changed. It feels different. Minor changes like maintaining a safe distance when queuing and packing our own bags have been taken on board without fuss. I don't hear much complaining about the restrictions being placed on us, and that is pleasing. Generally, people seem to be growing a brain and acting quite responsibly during this pandemic.


I've observed it can take quite a lot of effort to change people's behaviour. Clear and consistent messaging with some penalties attached, seems to do the trick, but it can take quite some time. The best example I can think of is Random Breath Testing which was first introduced in Australia in 1976, in Victoria. In 1976 drink driving was acceptable. In 2020 it is not. In my lifetime I've witnessed this massive change in societal attitudes to what has always been a foolish and dangerous act, even before drink driving laws were codified.

In contrast to this, has been the rapid response of people to COVID-19. There was no toilet paper on the supermarket shelves for two months. Other products are still in short supply. People are not going out except to work, shop and exercise as per government instructions. We panic when someone near us coughs or sneezes. Out hands have never been cleaner. People actually practise social distancing. In the blink of an eye, society has been transformed.

And so we dance.

Yesterday it was quite crowded at Coles and I saw much less attention to social distancing. The news is of course positive for Territorians. We haven't had a new case of COVID-19 for nearly two weeks. Schools will re open for all students tomorrow and there is talk of the Northern Territory leading the way out of these strange times in which we live, by easing restrictions before any one else. From what I saw yesterday, the latest round of positive whispering has had an immediate impact on people's behaviour.

And so I watch, reminded of the words of an ancient prophet who compared people to sheep noting we have "all gone astray; each of us turned to his own way." (Isaiah 53:6)

Sunday, April 12, 2020

relationDips: the eternal pantry

Food is purchased from the supermarket, brought home and stored in the fridge and the pantry. At the appropriate time that food is consumed, and will need to be replaced, if it's a staple or something you like, or substituted if it is not.

A pantry is a food cupboard, but we have other types of cupboards and storage spaces around our homes where we put things until we want to use them. We collect these things through various means, mostly our own purchases, supplemented by the presents of others. The purpose of these things is to add value to our lives, either aesthetically or practically. Essentially, because quality of life is primarily and directly connected to the quality of our relationships, these things are servants, slaves to a greater cause.

There are of course other investments we make into our relationships like time, and the greatest of all gifts; ourselves.
Just as food supplies what our bodies need, there are certain types of essential food for relationships. Love, in all its many splendid forms, care, consideration, courtesy, passion and sacrifice, is an obvious one. Love is infinite because it comes from an inexhaustible source. It's very much like the endless pack of Tim Tams where by some magical power you can keep on going to the pantry and getting more love. 

It's the same deal with patience and kindness. It even works with gratitude and passion. These priceless commodities emanate from the source of all good things: God. God is our eternal pantry, the tireless supplier of those precious things we need to keep our relationships healthy. The bottomless well of relational nutrients.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many of us to empty supermarkets shelves for the first time in our lives. Our pantries are perhaps also less well stocked. These shortages have allowed the weeds of fear and anxiety to prosper as our life sustaining ability to interact with others has been curtailed and much of the fun taken out of our social lives. Whether this hurts or helps our relationships depends on us.

Many are finding pathways through the darkness because of the eternal light which illuminates the road ahead. Faith, hope and love are also flourishing as we hold on to them, and for some of us, as we hold on to their ultimate source. God promises to supply all of our needs. He never breaks his promises, which is another thing we should learn and apply to our relationships. To have happy and healthy relationships we need more of what God has to offer, and it's as easy as entering the pantry or opening a cupboard and taking it off the shelf.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

A Dog's Eye: Space Invaders

It's funny you know. I didn't plan to write at all about the only thing people want to talk about. (Even if the main topic is not COVID-19, the subtext often is.) I guess the rebel in me, the one that might be condemning me to obscurity as a writer, just wanted to swim upstream.

I must be getting old and soft as I've just given in and jumped on the bandwagon. Partly, it's common sense. If I want to be in the world, why pretend that what the world cares about is a figment of overactive imagination? It's not. It would be stupid to think so. It's real and although I don't feel anxious, I acknowledge that many do. I wouldn't be a very good human if I didn't care about that. 

The other reason I'm writing about it is because it is having an impact on me. How could it not? Who hasn't been touched by what's happening? On Friday afternoon, we closed to students and will be switching to online delivery even though we, neither teachers nor students, are ready for that. As a result of the scramble to get ready, I've been employing a lot of mental energy to think of, process and implement various solutions to the myriad of problems which keep popping up. I'm not on my Pat Malone. Many people are facing exactly the same issues, or a host of different complications. Personally and professionally, COVID19's footprint is significant.

I don't recall ever spending so much time thinking about work as I have this week. I'm very good at switching off. I don't bring work home because I don't have to. I don't feel any obligation to complete work outside of the hours I'm paid for, nor to invest time and energy in solving work problems when I'm not at work. Of course, it happens sometimes, but as a rule, when I leave my office I leave my office behind.

This week has been different. I'm acutely aware I'm operating at a much higher level than normal. Those spaces reserved for non work related thinking are being invaded. Last night, I went to bed early and slept soundly. I told my wife, my brain was exhausted, but I was exaggerating...a little. If I was operating under my own strength, I wouldn't be able to maintain this intensity. However, my God is my strength and my song, and he gives me a fresh start each day. This morning I woke up good to go. Thankfully, I have two days at home before resuming the battle.

My prayer for everyone is that we become stronger through this trial. That we care more, love more and give more. That we value things we have taken for granted, and that we figure out what really matters and live out that belief instead of just paying lip service to it.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Snake Oil: all the sanny's been magpied

Most of us are trying to look for sunshine amid the gloom of the worst pandemic in our lifetimes. We're adjusting our behaviour in response to advice and regulation. Flexibility is the key because flexible thinking enables adaptivity. We're finding ways to continue living when much of what we have taken for granted for all of our lives has been taken from us, albeit temporarily. People are becoming accustomed to the COVID-19 world; even slowly desensitized to the surreality, the sickness and the death.

Humour, as always, is proving a powerful weapon in the fight against the contagion of anxiety and negativity associated with this rapidly spreading virus. An anonymous genius has coined some new slang which I've already adopted, as many others will. People are making humourous videos and sharing them on social media platforms. We're joking with each other about the lighter, more trivial aspects, like the lack of toilet paper. Humans are incredibly resilient, as has been proven time and time again throughout history.

Less well known or acknowledged is how we are designed to survive, and to lean each other, as much as possible to get through hard times. The so called 'will to live' is an exceptionally important part of our programming. The magpies taking all the toilet paper and fighting over what is left are not representative of us. We're better than that because God made us better than that. In times of trouble we come together, we help each other. We make sacrifices for others because we care. In all this we reflect God's character which is, above all else, love. We love because God first loved us. Love only seems natural; in fact it is supernatural.

I'll finish with a couple of funny experiences. One at a Coles supermarket, and the other at Domino's pizza. There was no toilet paper on the shelves but I asked a manager-looking type and he got me a four pack from the storeroom. I felt very conspicuous as I paid for the toilet paper and then carried it under my arm through the entire length of the mall. I couldn't stop myself from thinking, 'they're coming to get me. They want the toilet paper.'

At Domino's we proceeded to the counter at the appropriate time having been forewarned not to enter the store until our pizza was ready. While we stood at the counter, sorry 1.5 metres from the counter, two staff set up chairs at either end of the social distancing line, then made a chest high line of duct tape to prevent people from crossing the line. I was momentarily thrown off by this. How was I to get my pizza? The young lady behind the counter and I looked at each other. Stupidly, I asked the question: 'How does this work?'

Another customer arrived and demonstrated how two outstretched arms easily covered the social distancing gap. As I said, these are strange times we live in.