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Farewells To Schools

The last two days have seen my final assemblies at two primary schools. How I shall miss them.

At one, they presented me with a ‘Goodbye Book’. Every child had written something to me. Elaborate messages from Year Sizes; just the names from Reception Class children. The School Council had also mentioned ne in Dispatches to the Anglican Diocese (it’s a church school).

At the second – our own children’s school – the Head presented me with a box of chocolates.

What a contrast with my arrival here five years ago, when I had never taken an assembly. But gentle persuasion by the woman who was then Head of that first school and now leads the second changed all that. From fearing assemblies to loving them, I now can’t imagine ministry without them.

It just shows you what God can do.

The Enduring Power Of Martin Luther King

Today, I took two assemblies in a school- one for the infants (ages 4-7) and one for the juniors (7-11). I was beginning a new theme for this term: heroes. Those of us on the assembly team from local churches had decided to eschew the word ‘saints’ in favour of something more understandable.

Not remembering that next Monday is the American public holiday in his honour I chose to speak about Martin Luther King. In preparation, I found this clip of the entire ‘I have a dream’ speech on YouTube:

I downloaded this, using the free utility YouTube Downloader. As you’ll see, it’s seventeen minutes long, so then I edited it in Windows Live Movie Maker to begin at the ‘I have a dream’ passage (at 12:29, if you’re interested).

After an introduction talking about issues of fairness based on real-life examples (Rosa Parks and tbe bus seat, water fountains, different schools, slavery in the case of the juniors and so on), I showed about one and a half minutes to the infants – up to the point where King says he wants hi four little children judged not on the colour of their skin but their character. With the juniors, I played a few seconds more – to the point where he envisions black and white children playing together and treating one another as sisters and brothers.

And that was when the Interesting Thing happened: when I paused the video for the juniors, several of them broke out in spontaneous applause. How wonderful it was to see the style and substance of King’s oratory make a connection with children in a different country, forty-seven years later.

So don’t tell me preaching is dead. We can legitimately talk about style, presentation and all the rest. But when we have a message to share and can do so with passion, surely the Holy Spirit still uses it to connect. Sure, King’s crusade was about a theme that would command common assent generally today, and when I went through the examples of ‘unfairness’ the juniors roared back their disapproval of what happened. But there is something here.

And it’s also about King’s story generally. Why did I choose King? Partly for this reason. Our chidren have been introduced to one or two famous figures at school via books recently. One was Florence Nightingale. Another was Mary Seacole. As a result, we have borrowed other books in the series from the library and read them with our two. One night I read a simple biography of King to Mark for his bedtime story. Granted, it omitted things like King’s alleged infidelities, but the impact on Mark was fascinating. The next day he told us he had changed his mind about what he wanted to do with his life. Previously he has wanted to be an English teacher or an author.

“Now I want to be a minister,” he said, “And tell people not to hate each other.”

He is only five. But I was only eight when King was murdered. There is real power here.

Sabbatical, Day 41: Learning To Twitter, Learning To Read, And A Horrible Shock

Having set up a Twitter account yesterday, I have started to customise it today. I have found various friends by letting Twitter examine the addresses in my Gmail address book. A particular pleasure was to find one who resolutely refuses to join Facebook. And I have reached the dizzy heights of – wait patiently – two followers!

However, I recall vaguely various articles about useful Twitter tools. What I can’t find are the web articles and blog posts I saw. That shouldn’t surprise me: I read them when I wasn’t interested in using Twitter! So – those of you who read this and who tweet, which services do you recommend? The one I remember is Tweetdeck, but what do you use? Please tell me in the comments section below. 

Back in the ‘normal’ world of ministry, Friday is usually my day off. Last autumn, I volunteered to help our children’s school for twenty minutes every Friday morning. The head teacher had introduced a feature to give a more consistent emphasis on literacy. She called it ‘Reading Revelry’. Three mornings a week after registration, the children in every class are split into ability-based small groups and read a short book together. This required a considerable number of parent volunteers. 

Hence, this morning I had my weekly twenty minutes. Although I was allocated the group with the best ability in the class I serve, today they were too distracted by Comic Relief. One girl was more concerned with keeping her red nose in place than keeping her nose in the book. “Reading is boring,” she said. Let’s hope she changes her mind!

Finally, something completely different. And heartbreaking. Late last night I had a shock. It’s about a minister friend of mine. He’d always been Mr Angry as long as I’d known him, but he had a great wife and wonderful kids. So much so that I thought, if ever I have children, I want them to be like his.

A year or two ago, I was shocked to learn that his wife had left him. Worse, I then heard he had been suspended from the ministry. Tracking him on Facebook and other places, I knew he had taken up with another girl. There were things he said about that relationship that I couldn’t square with Christian faith, but my faith had always been rather more conservative than his.

Then he disappeared off the Internet radar. Facebook profile gone, other traces vanished, too. Last night I googled his name. I discovered he had pleaded guilty to Internet child porn offences. As someone who writes, I’m supposed to be able to find words to describe and express thoughts and feelings. I can’t. All I can say is, please pray for him, and everyone who will have felt betrayed by him: family, friends, churches, victims. May God have mercy on us all.

Sabbatical, Day 6

I haven’t really done any sabbatical work today. Friday is usually my day off, and I’ve kept it much like that. I think it’s good to keep the rhythm. So after taking the children to school, I stayed on, because on Friday mornings I do twenty minutes’ reading with a group of Year 1 children.

Late morning, Debbie and I headed into town. We needed some more bargain school uniform for the monkeys and struck gold at Marks and Spencer. Yes, really. Then we continued our recent habit of having a cheap lunch out together. Yates’s Wine Lodge (why do they put that extra ‘s’ after the apostrophe?) had a two-for-£7.95 deal, and it was good for the price. The downside was the company at the next table. Two young women with a pre-school boy. One was his mother, poor lad. All sorts of unsavoury conversation that youngsters shouldn’t hear. Debbie swears one of them got him to drink a mouthful of her shot. Some kids don’t have a chance.

Meanwhile, I have been following all week the case of Caroline Petrie, the Christian nurse who was suspended for offering to pray with a patient. She offered prayer, the patient declined, Mrs Petrie did not pray. The patient was not offended, but told someone else she thought it was strange. Next thing, Mrs Petrie is under investigation. She has previously been disciplined for offering prayer cards. The Daily Mail reported this on Monday,as did the Daily Telegraph. On Tuesday, the Mail reported support for her case from the Royal College of Nursing and the Christian Medical Fellowship. Today, the Mail reports her reinstatement, but – along with the Telegraph – also quotes a further potentially sinister development. The Department of Health published a document last month in which it warned that doctors or nurses who attempted to preach to patients or other staff would be treated as having committed harassment or intimidation under disciplinary procedures.

Furthermore, I have received a press release today from the Evangelical Alliance in which Hazel Blears, the Government’s Communities Secretary, told faith groups that if they accept money from the state, they must not use it to proselytise. They may speak about their faith if spoken to, she says, but clearly taking the initiative to mention it would be forbidden under a forthcoming ‘charter of excellence’. She then says she doesn’t want to strip away the very reason why faith groups show compassion! The Alliance’s Director of Public Policy, R David Muir, responded:

“The Government wants the social action and welfare that faith groups provide, but there is a danger that they also want faith groups to leave their beliefs at the door.

“Our faith is what equips us as Christians to provide support and compassion to those who are spiritually and emotionally damaged by debt.

“But we are glad that the Government recognises how integral our faith is to the services we provide, and is open to discussion on this critical issue. We look forward to working with them.”

All round, then, seem to be threats against Christians making the first move in sharing their faith and using it to offer comfort and hope to people. Here are a few random reflections:

1. None of this should surprise us. Whatever the faith of Blair first and now Brown, the Labour Party runs these days on a fundamentally secular humanist creed. Let’s here none of that ‘the Labour Party owes more to Methodism than Marxism’ mantra. It may have been true in the past. It isn’t today. Christians should expect such opposition.

2. Nevertheless, none of that should stop us crying ‘foul’. All these cases are about discrimination against the freedom of religion the Government supposedly signed up to when it ratified the European Convention on Human Rights. And while part of me is wary of the secular philosophies behind that document, the Government clearly doesn’t want to accept that sauce for the goose is a tasty accompaniment for the gander as well.

3. We also need to reflect upon ourselves. How much of this might we have brought upon ourselves through insensitive ‘witnessing’? Please note, I’m not saying Mrs Petrie was. I don’t know her, and the fact that she didn’t press on with a prayer for her elderly patient when the offer was declined suggests that while she is upfront with her faith, she is probably not the aggressive sort. Nevertheless, most of us know Christians whose demeanour in faith-sharing makes us cringe, let alone what the non-Christians feel.

4. However, an attempt to prevent us from taking the initiative is effectively a tactic to shut us up. I believe we have to earn the right to speak by loving, holy, just action, but that does not mean we cannot speak first or simultaneously as well.

5. The ‘public money’ argument is specious. It’s not Government money, it’s taxpayers’ money. And while we elect officials to use it, they are stewards, not owners. Do they think Christians should not pay their taxes? This kind of argument amounts to an attempt to strip us of our democratic voice.

6. There is a huge case of historical amnesia here. As today’s Mail article rightly points out, many of our hospitals were explicitly Christian foundations in their origin. In the church we would want to say more than that, in crediting the rise of the infirmaries and more recently the hospices to Christian vision. So to tell a nurse her faith must come second forgets the origin of much health care in this country.

7. Furthermore, no Christian can put her faith second. I am fond of telling the story of an elderly Local Preacher from my home circuit. He was interviewed for the post of Secretary to the local Co-Operative Society. “Where will you put the Co-Op in your loyalties?” the panel asked him. “Second,” he replied, “to the church of Jesus Christ.” I don’t think he meant that all his time would be spent at church, I think he meant that his faith would determine his life. He got the job, and did it well.

8. Nevertheless, putting our faith second puts us under suspicion in society. There is huge historical precedent for this. It’s what Daniel did, praying towards Jerusalem while serving faithfully in Babylon. It’s the centuries-long suspicion of Catholic loyalty to the Vatican. In the name of what is currently calle ‘community cohesion’, authorities call people together to a common loyalty that is effectively a secular creed. Hence other phenomena in our society today, such as the opposition to faith schools, or the legislation that has made it increasingly difficult to have organisations that are exclusively staffed by Christians. Do we cave in? The biblical answer seems to me to be ‘no’. However, that means accepting the consequences. We’re not remotely near the situation Christians found themselves in when communism ruled eastern Europe, but there it was well known that people of faith would not get on well with their careers and would suffer economically for their beliefs. Might we be seeing the thinnest end of that wedge here, or is that alarmist?

I think that’s enough from me. What are your thoughts?

Left-Handed

Dearly belovèd, my text for today is this:

‘Since the right hemisphere of the brain controls the left side of the body, only left-handed people are in their right mind.’

Copyright © Anything Left-Handed.

Yes, I am one of those select human beings who is left-handed. Moreover, both our children share this delightful trait. My wife, who writes with her right hand, is ‘mixed handed’ – that is, not ambidextrous, where one can perform the same task with either hand, but she is largely split between those activities she performs right-handed and those for which she uses her left hand. Having said that, she is ambidextrous in the use of a computer mouse, and that is important in what I am about to type.

With three left-handers in the house and one who can use a mouse left or right-handed, we have both our PCs set up left-handed. That is more than putting the mouse to the left of the keyboard. It means (in the case of Microsoft Windows) going into Control Panel, finding the Mouse applet, and reversing the mouse buttons, so that left-handers still use their index finger and ring finger as right-handers would do. Just moving the mouse over would mean excessive use of the ring finger and might risk tendinitis. (Ubuntu Linux is similar; with Apple Macs, I understand it’s irrelevant, with mice that have only one button.)

Thus, our children have learned how to use a computer at home in a left-handed fashion. That means no damage to their natural hand-eye co-ordination. It also means no criticism from ignorant right-handers, telling them they are doing things wrongly, which is a common experience for left-handers, and thus little surprise we are more clumsy than the average, and sometimes suffer lower than average self-esteem due to regularly being told we are wrong when we’re not.

Here comes the problem. Nobody forces left-handers to write right-handed any more, to my knowledge – although I once worked with someone younger than me to whom that had happened. But it is astonishing to find schools not understanding that left-handers should be able to use PCs left-handed. Our children’s school didn’t. Our daughter was coming home from school saying she was struggling with the school computers, and always getting her clicks wrong. She was distressed. 

We had raised the issue at a parents’ evening, only to be told that left-handed children were adaptable. To which my question has always been, ‘Why?’ We have to be! I wrote to the teacher, asking that they change the aforementioned mouse settings in Control Panel. No joy.

So another letter. I had downloaded a piece of software recommended by Anything Left-Handed. Once installed, you only have to click CTRL-F12 to alternate between left and right-handed use. Simple? No, the IT guy wasn’t prepared to go round, installing it on every computer.

Instead, they suggested we bought Rebekah her own wireless mouse that she could use. Then it dawned on me – doh! – that it was no solution. The change had to be in the operating system, not the mouse. So I wrote again, also pointing out this wasn’t a Rebekah issue, this was potentially an issue for the 10% of the school population that was left-handed.

All of which brought us to today, and a meeting with the Head Teacher. Now, we love the Head. I have known her for three years, which is two years before she came to our children’s school, because she twisted my arm into taking assemblies at her previous school. She is a lovely, caring person, and in a recent OFSTED was almost promoted to sainthood for her dynamic leadership. She deserved every word of praise.

Nevertheless, I was nervous about seeing her. But there was good news. She had phoned the county IT department. They had confirmed what I had said about Control Panel, so it’s now all systems go, and our children will be able to use the computers left-handed. The Head and Deputy had never come across the issue before, which surprised me, but maybe I’m just a militant left-hander with minor geek tendencies who will stand up for his children! They needed some reassurance that if children learned PCs left-handed at primary school that they would not then have to switch back to right-handed in secondary schools or in industry, but I couldn’t see that would be a problem. They also have decided to survey who is left and who is right-handed in the school, and have asked me for any research on whether left-handers are better or worse at any particular curriculum subjects. It is an amazing result for something that looked so unpromising when I was running up against a major lack of understanding.

I am also thrilled if this means the school is open to expanding its horizons. It is better than I faced at school, although I had far more problems at secondary school than primary. Of course, computers weren’t in schools back in the Stone Age, and primary school was made quite easy by the fact that we only wrote with a pencil. Yes, I got some discoloration on the small finger of my left hand as I moved across the page from left to right, but that was the worst it got. I’ll grant they didn’t know to teach me to slant my paper at 45°, and nor did they know about left-handed scissors (but my parents did, thanks to Anything Left-Handed’s old shop in Brewer Street, London). But it wasn’t oppressive.

Secondary school was, though. I went to a young school where the Head wanted to infuse it with instant ancient traditions. In fact, my brother-in-law read the Wikipedia entry on it and said to my sister, “Good grief, you went to Hogwarts!” It was compulsory to write with a fountain pen. Fountain pens are torture for left-handers, due to our pushing of a pen across the paper. (Indeed, it remains the one thing I don’t enjoy about conducting weddings as a minister – I must use a fountain pen with registrar’s ink to complete the registers.) Ballpoints are different. One sympathetic Maths teacher told me to disregard the school rules and use a ballpoint. However, I would have risked punishment for doing so. So it was that I began the ‘hook’ style of writing that many left-handers adopt. It isn’t good or healthy, but I didn’t know that then. I was just trying to reduce my frequent use of blotting paper.

Similarly, PE lessons were a problem. The one sport at which I was remotely talented was cricket. I bowled left arm. The Games teacher (sorry, ‘master’) would give me the usual ignorant instruction that many left-handers endure in all sorts of situations: “Just reverse what I tell the right-handers.” It was only when a former Middlesex and England cricketer, Jack Robertson, came in to do some coaching, that this was challenged. He told the Games master that left-handers had a special contribution to cricket and I should be nurtured. I don’t think I ever was, once Jack stopped coming.

Worst of all was probably Sixth Form (that’s Years Twelve and Thirteen in new money). We were provided with seats that had a hinged desktop on them. They were all hinged on the right, on which side the desktop was extended so you could rest your right arm. They were shorter on the left side, making for a very stretched writing style. I believe it was one major factor that contributed to the sudden onset of severe neck pain a month before my A-Levels (which I never took).

Much of the time, we left-handers have to accept we are the minority and that most of life is going to be set up for the majority. It doesn’t make it any easier for us to be at a bank or Post Office counter where the pen is always chained on the right, or to have paying-in books with a counterfoil on the left – although major banks have begun to learn their lesson on that and now offer left-handed paying in books and cheque books.

Not only that, the Anything Left-Handed people offer a wonderful range of resources, including one of my favourites, the left-handed ruler. It’s numbered from right to left, which is instinctively the way my brain works. Come and see how I file my books or CDs and you’ll see my point.

We also have certain advantages in life, and should not just play the victim. It is a blessing to be in a country where we have right-hand drive cars, because it means the gear lever is on the driver’s left, and falls to our stronger hand. In most sports, the different angle used by a left-hander, being less common, is a strategic advantage. Rafael Nadal, the current men’s tennis number one, plays left-handed but in life writes right-handed. The only exception I know is hockey, where it is contrary to the laws to play left-handed.

But overall, we are at a disadvantage. I would hate people to interpret this as my saying we are disabled, because we are not. However, given the barriers I have had to cross for the sake of my children – but also the warm-hearted response of the Head – I do hope others will take the trouble to understand.

And in the meantime, more power to Anything Left-Handed: you do a great job and deserve tons of custom.