Sunday, 31 January 2010


When I looked at the strategies recommended to increase happiness I was surprised at two things. The first was how important the pen was. Writing down one's thoughts and feelings, or journalling as it called, has definite benefits. Secondly, it was gratifying to see just how Biblical so many of the research findings are.
The first recommendation is to cultivate the gratitude attitude. Or, as one Californian university, said: Count your blessings. To use the coffee pot story again: go outside into the cold for a while and when you return you will begin to appreciate all those things you take for granted - a roof over your head, your Mum's roast dinners, friends and neighbours in the street and especially in church, and all those things that make life comfortable. But don't just think about them. Write them down - at least three of them at the end of each day
Next, try "affectionate writing". Think of a person who has been a great blessing or help to you, then write a short sincere letter to that person expressing just how you appreciate his or her actions.
"It is better to give than to receive". Many experiments have been done where groups were either instructed to spent an amount of money either on themselves or on others. Those who gave to others had higher levels of happiness that those who acted more selfishly.
Lastly, those people who believe and pray are consistent happier than those that don't. But it was noticed that those who prayed for themselves were less contented and happy than those who prayed for others.
Sometimes the researchers have noticed significant improvements in health and happiness in those who took part.
There is so much in the bible about thankfulness and praise. One word used in the NT for thankfulness, eucharisteo, is used about forty times. Ingratitude to God and to others, is totally unchristian. See Luke 17:11-19.

Friday, 29 January 2010

Our Mortality

I n some ways it's a bit morbid to think about death, but as a Christian it is something that has to be faced. As we get older our mortality begins to stare us in the face.

One of my favourite poems is Prospice by Robert Browning. I think it is a superb poem, full of exciting rhythms, meaningful images and a powerful and satisfying finale. I hope you enjoy it.

          EAR death? -- to feel the fog in my throat,
          The mist in my face,
          When the snows begin, and the blasts denote
          I am nearing the place,
          The power of the night, the press of the storm,
          The post of the foe;
          Where he stands, the Arch Fear in a visible form,
          Yet the strong man must go:
          For the journey is done and the summit attained,
          And the barriers fall,
          Though a battle's to fight ere the guerdon be gained,
          The reward of it all.
          I was ever a fighter, so -- one fight more,
          The best and the last!
          I would hate that death bandaged my eyes, and forbore,
          And bade me creep past.
          No! let me taste the whole of it, fare like my peers
          The heroes of old,
          Bear the brunt, in a minute pay glad life's arrears
          Of pain, darkness and cold.
          For sudden the worst turns the best to the brave,
          The black minute's at end,
          And the elements' rage, the fiend-voices that rave,
          Shall dwindle, shall blend,
          Shall change, shall become first a peace out of pain,
          Then a light, then thy breast,
          O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again,
          And with God be the rest!

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Catherine of Siena

Savonarola's memorial in Florence

The highlights to me when I went to Tuscany was my visit to Florence, probably the art capital of the world, a medieval city gifted with more talent per head of the population than any other city in history, and to see what I could find out about Catherine of Siena.
In the main square of Florence is a round grey stone (see above) that shows the spot where that amazing Christian, Girolamo Savonarola, was burnt to death in 1498. He was a flaming prophet and the Florentines could not stand any longer his sermons condemning their vain lives and classical idolatries.
These are a few shots I took when I visited Siena a few days later It was a cold autumn Tuscan day when we drove to the town. For me the most important reason to visit this fascinating medieval town was to visit any sites associated with Catherine of Sienna, a Catholic saint virtually unheard-of in the protestant circles I grew up in. Yet I feel strongly that her moral and spiritual teaching has a timeless relevance. Her teaching about our neighbour has a relevance for everyone of us.
"Your neighbour is the medium through which you can serve me..... you can perform all virtues by means of you neighbour. Love with no consideration of your own advantage, whether spiritual or temporal."
But the classic passage in her dialogues is as follows:
I ask you to love Me with the same love with which I love you. But for Me you cannot do this, for I loved you without being loved. Whatever love you have for Me you owe Me, so you love Me, not gratuitously but out of duty, while I love you not out of duty, but gratuitously. So you cannot give me the kind of love I ask of you. This is why I have put you among your neighbours: so that you can do for them what you cannot do for Me - that is, love them without any concern for thanks and without looking for any profit for yourself. And whatever you do for them I will consider done for me.
This teaching, so simple, so profound, can solve a multitude of problems. I remember sitting in a counselling session at Spring Harvest listening to a you mother weeping bitterly over her twenty years of "undistinguished service." She had probably sat in challenging meetings where the needs of heathen lands were vividly portrayed and had probably read books giving details of heroic deeds in distant lands. Her own homely domestic virtues, the loving or her children and husband, seemed very small and almost worthless. She felt condemned and second rate. The words of Catherine could have lifted her from this pit of introspective despair.
Catherine was born in 1347, the twenty-fifth child of a cloth dyer. From an early age she strongly attracted to the Lord but intensity of her devotion irritated her parents, who were hoping that she would have a fashionable marriage. Her father relented, however, and allowed to live the way she wanted. She lived in solitude and practised the most extreme austerities. Then, in 1366, she had a vision of the Lord, who told her enter the world and do His will in normal life. For the rest of her short life she was governed by two aims; loving her neighbour, especially the sick and the poor, and the conversion of sinners. She once stood with a condemned nobleman, who was being executed for treason, all the way to the gallows. She had pleaded with him about the needs of his soul. As he died he cried out ,"Jesus and Catherine"
Although she suffered a lot of ill-health those she met and influenced were deeply impressed by her radiant cheerfulness. Another trait that deeply impressed those near her was her amazing ability to point out their deepest needs of their hearts by saying a few words.
She died in 1380 of a stroke. She was only thirty-three
Afew more photos of Tuscany

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Dr Johnson

Dr Johnson was a larger-than-life writer who lived in London in the eighteenth century. He was a robust Christian of the traditional sort. I was going through a book of quotations and came across pages devoted to his trenchant and witty sayings. I include a few here and I will add to the number as I do more research.
Talking about a disreputable man called Hervey he said: He was a vicious man, but very kind to me. If you call a dog Hervey, I shall love him
The next quotation sounds shocking to modern ears. It concerns corporal punishment in schools. He said: The rod produces an effect which terminates in itself. A child is afraid of being whipped, and gets to his task, and there's an end on it; whereas by exciting emulation and comparisons of superiority, you lay the foundation of lasting mischief; you make brothers and sisters hate each other.
I remember reading somewhere about the education of the celebrated historian Edward Gibbon, who, when asked how he got such a fluency in the classical languages, replied drily, "With many tears and a little blood." Life was tough in those days.
The next is to my mind a piece of eloquent wisdom that is applicable to all.
If a man does not make new acquaintances as he advances through life he will soon find himself alone. A man, Sir, should keep his friendships in good repair.

Havering in snow

A few days ago we had heavy snowfall in Havering - heavy, at least, for this part of the world. I was out with my camera and a I took a few shots, some of which I have tinkered with in Photoshop. I tried to get an infra-red look in the duplicated monochrome shots. When I looked at the frozen and lifeless soil, especially on my allotment, the question put by Ezekiel came to mind, "Can these bones (soil in my case) live"? When the warmth and the sun of spring arrive it will be like a resurrection.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Peaceful London


London is a pretty hectic town like so many in the developed world. But there are quaint spots where the rush and pace of modern living seem to pass by unnoticed. One such spot is Little Venice, a romantic name coined by Robert Browning.
It is situated a busy area of west London, very near Paddingon. Overhead and nearby there are the busy noises of motorways, but this spot is a quiet oasis by the side of the Grand Union Canal, a waterway that runs from Birmingham to the Thames in London. Before the age of the train most heavy goods were transported throughout Britain by horse-drawn barges. All that traffic has long gone and today the many craft that quietly cruise these canals are for recreation only.