The Greatest Teacher

I hope you will let me tell you a little about the greatest teacher I’ve ever known with the most astonishing results in the history of our world and from whom I’ve discovered so much.  Now, from the outset, let’s be clear that no-one can ever be all this alone but we can all learn from His example, being amazed, inspired and shaped by His brilliance.

Firstly, He prioritised self-development but this was targeted to what He could actually put into practice, not just skimming and skipping onto new topics, but going deeper and working out from what He already knew.  He took time to learn from His colleagues and those much older than Him, whilst sharing openly His own insights and questions.  Thus, wisdom and compassion, when offered to others, returned back to Him in many unexpected, yet wonderful, ways.

He sought out the best role models and teachers of His generation – those who answered His questions with patience, an open-mind and a determination to never be overwhelmed by evil.  When He was ready, He started to teach publicly on the topics that mattered for His day.  He did not rush into battle unprepared for combat, but took time to equip Himself fully for the day ahead.  Being creative, He told many stories and used everyday illustrations that helped people to understand more of the world around them.

Realising that His time was short, He built around Him a community of people, from all different backgrounds, so that His Good News would endure.  He was patient and welcoming with all different levels of ability, willing to go out of His way to defend and bring people back.  Knowing his students, He neither overloaded them with too many demands, nor tolerated any behaviour that could lead to their own destruction, by causing division and harm.  He encouraged, supported and corrected, as and when, necessary.

Above all, he instructed His friends to forgive each other’s mistakes and offences – this was the key to their growth that opened doors to beautiful reconciliation and healing.  Although other people tried to copy His methods, He was content to focus on the task set, providing they did not oppose His priorities.  Collaboration triumphed over competition, but He faced stern critics who tried to trip Him up.  He knew that He always risked being misunderstood, misinterpreted or even worse, but He still kept striving to do what was good.  He was fully assured of the Father’s love – the mysterious, amazing grace that lifts lost souls up out of despair, brings new mercies our way each day, and sustains us during difficulties.

He encouraged people to work in pairs and teams because He knew that each person needed to be involved to bring out the best in terms of learning experiences and impact on those they sought to reach.  Unlike the Marines who accept only the fittest and strongest, He flung open the gates to anyone and everyone to come, just as they were – with those rough edges – and worked to polish them into diamonds.  He enthused them with vision and purpose, taking time to find out their potential and affirming what they would one day be.  Some needed much tender care and some stern warnings to keep them on track, but always His kindness shone through.  At times, He thought upon those He loved as little children – needing serving, structure and guidance, someone to get alongside them, listen to their problems and offer the sound advice that He’d picked-up over the years.  Someone to rescue them, especially if they started to sink in their zeal to follow Him…

He was a fixer and doer, without rushing between jobs or letting daydreams cloud His judgment.  He soon found out what language worked with each student by varying and simplifying His vocabulary, making as many possible connections with other people’s experiences and aspirations.  Finally, He showed the full extent of love in His willingness to suffer and die for all humanity.  Astonishingly, however, this was not the end of the story…

His followers spread out in numerous different directions.  In many ways, His Spirit still moves unexpectedly today.  However, we all need to keep discovering Christ Jesus afresh or to find Him for the first time ourselves.  So, let me tell you: He’s the source of my strength and life – the One who turns my life right-side up when it’s toppled over.  He lifted me up out of despair, gave me hope and purpose, makes my spirit sing.  He strove to connect with all kinds of people, so that by whatever possible means He might help as many as possible, especially those most needy.  He reminds me that I’m writing to real people with complex issues that can be discussed and worked through together, not hidden away.  He’s not scary, but very welcoming and just takes time to get to know.  If you want the world around you to brighten up, then learn from the one Man who truly never put a foot wrong and yet still did much that was very good.  So, please ask me about Him anytime, read about Him in the gospels and come along to a Christianity Explored event (www.christianityexplored.org/).  Come, see and meet Him for yourself. Image

PS – Jesus told stories – parables – ways of helping people to understand timeless truths.  In some ways, the above is a story of who He was, but it is also amply backed-up by evidence.  I’m being creative and describing the details as you would today… for a certain audience.  What an amazing story and even better that it’s based on truth and you can know this King Jesus for yourself.

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Compute our Education

I wrote this letter originally to our Scottish Education Secretary back in March 2012 – when will the government listen?

Dear Mr Russell,

I would like to enquire about current government thinking on the use of technologies in schools, colleges and universities, particularly with relation to the final exams and assessments student will sit.  I believe there is a golden opportunity for Scotland to lead the world by setting ambitious targets for phasing out handwriting tests by going digital.

In the current competitive economic climate, our nation needs every possible advantage.  Nowadays, businesses simply do not require applicants to have handwriting skills and, increasingly, rely on technology-savvy employees to make efficiency gains.  Ask yourself, when was the last time you actually wrote anything by hand, other than possibly to scribble down some notes?  Now, could that just have easily been typed or recorded into your Blackberry or iPad, then seamlessly transferred these to your desk or lap top computer?  As reported recently by the BBC News Online (14/02/2012), there is a growing trend towards BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), which underscores the importance employers are placing on technology in the workplace.

There are also gains to be made in using computers to create more equal opportunities for learners.  Tragically, there are many students who do not quite meet the threshold for ‘special exam arrangements’, but still struggle with the discipline of handwriting because they are, quite understandably, much more familiar with using technology and typing to process their thoughts.  In fact, many pupils and students should be seriously aggrieved at a system that, in the name of equality, gives extra help to those with the pushiest parents or the most serious diagnosis, thereby skewing SQA test results in favour of the fortunate few. 

As a Communication lecturer at Moray College, Elgin, I see students who really struggle with crafting answers on paper suddenly blossoming when we book an IT room and enable them to word process their answers.  Those tangents that previously were added with squiggly lines and arrows now can be seamlessly integrated into the text.   Paragraph plans can be quickly typed, as thoughts occur, and then the details filled in, without any unnecessary repetition of effort.  Many of those who ‘wash-up’ in FE have been failed by our out-dated educational methods and not been given the chances they need to thrive.  The tragedy is that those who never properly master handwriting, or are cursed with an almost illegible scrawl, then struggle to access and enjoy the majority of subjects in schools, which are divorced from real world media.  Alternatively, they may wind-up doing innumerable glitter-encrusted posters that doubtless enhance their creativity, but yet again fail to build-up their vocational skills.

For example, one 50-year-old student told me recently one of the best moments in his life was finally being able to express himself clearly and in a way others could understand after purchasing his first computer.  Previously, he was belted and sent to ‘remedial classes’ where nothing stuck.  Now, he is an aspiring author.  At the other end of the spectrum, I heard from a colleague of her P4 child in a local Elgin school who, in February 2012, was being chastised for not joining all his letters.  The teacher was wasting her and their time, standing over the class and insisting that every pupil conform to her preconceived notions of handwriting.  Now, personally, I have very legible and clear handwriting (being age 27 with a History and English Literature degree, so many opportunities to take notes on and write about interesting topics).  However, I do NOT join all my letters – that is not the style I have developed.  Why is this outdated nonsense given so much credence in the days of “A Curriculum for Excellence”?

We need to free-up time, so there is the opportunity to focus on Core Skills for all young people, not handwriting or calligraphy.  The curriculum is already exceptionally crowded and we need to prioritise what will genuinely prepare our future workforces for the demands of the 21st Century.  What matters with a person’s writing is accuracy, structure, format, logical argument… not the fact it is by hand!  There are so many other important skills to develop without giving inordinate emphasis to one technique.  It is very encouraging to see how computers have infiltrated so many parts of learning and teaching, but the process must continue and the thorny issue of assessments cannot be ignored.  I remember hearing of the innovative Secondary School on Islay who at least 5 years ago gave every pupil their own laptop.  We should be prepared to trial and assess the impact of such schemes.

From my previous experiences in Lochend (Easterhouse), Speyside (Aberlour) and Lossiemouth High Schools, I know that the key driver of change is the actual format of exams.  Many teachers will be slow to alter their practice or superficial in their adjustments, unless it affects their results.   The obvious case in point is CfE.  Despite innumerable ‘vision’ documents, only the publishing of the details of what tests will look like is bringing wholesale reforms.  Quite correctly, teachers know passes or fails is how they will be held to account.  Unfortunately, this means until the exam medium becomes electronic and technological too much time will be wasted in schools on processes and techniques that are redundant to the modern world.

It has now reached the stage where exams can be securely and effectively administered online.  Whilst I understand that money is tight for such a transformation, I would recommend scrapping all the local Council’s “Quality Improvement Officers”.  Again, from my experience and conversations with colleagues, their role was nebulous.  Why should schools need a pre-HMIE inspection audit?  This is totally unnecessary duplication.  The Senior Management Team in each school should be responsible to the parents and staff for improving quality, not another unnecessary layer of bureaucracy where mercenary individuals earn up to £60,000 for a function that causes unnecessary, even damaging, duplication.  If SMT are not up to the job in any school or working in heavy-handed, overly bureaucratic, non-collegiate fashions, then procedures need to be put into place for staff to identify and challenge this behaviour.  Investment must be directed to where it is most badly needed – on the front-line.

Moreover, pupils would be more encouraged and motivated to bring in their own electronic devices to help their learning, if they realised the importance schools and businesses actually placed on IT skills.  So many young people become disengaged with education because it does not reflect their world and seems fossilised.  Whilst, of course, appropriate safeguards and procedures would be required to regulate the use of technology in schools, we cannot simply ban change but must work to harness the potential of our “digital natives”.

This is already happening in some cases (“Exams Make Our Hands Sore”, The Guardian, 25th January 2012).   As reported, Edinburgh University offers first- and second-year divinity students a choice between handwriting or typing in essay-style exams (though this was clearly a poor pilot group to use as these individuals are most likely to be scholars in the traditional moulds).  This is a system copied from US law schools, where students download security software that blocks certain applications from laptops, making them suitable for assessment use.  The chief executive of Ofqual in England is already advocating an end to handwritten assessments and the implementation of computerisation (The Telegraph, 25th February, 2011).

Of course, this would have many spin-off benefits.  More and more services could be placed online, whilst pupils could be encouraged to teach tech-phobic members of their family.  By making this statement of intent, government would encourage IT to flourish, saving much money in the long-term and creating the basis for a more prosperous future.  Colleges are already geared-up for training students to use IT with much experience in getting alongside and helping those who fear the changes.  Libraries, schools and the Further Education sector can all be offering the facilities and support necessary for anyone and everyone to access the online, digital world.  We cannot allow anxieties to hold back technologies that, ultimately, liberate the lonely and disenfranchised. If we do nothing and bury our heads in the sinking sands of past traditions, we doom people by our inaction as the clock cannot be turned back.

I understand this would require a large capital investment and the history of centrally-led IT projects in schools (namely GLOW!) is not particularly encouraging, but I do feel that the Scottish Government can make a hugely significant improvement to our nation’s education with a relatively small change.  Handwriting, like calligraphy, will always be an art and should never be ignored, but must be put into proper perspective – useful for adding the personal touch to birthday cards, not the cornerstone of our curriculum.  I want to kick-start the debate on these issues but I plead with our politicians to consider setting ambitious targets to ensure that our children are educated for the 21st Century, not held back by 20th Century mores.

Interdependent, not independent

“Independence – the Ultimate Statement of Self-Confidence”.  So typed a rather deluded SNP spokesperson, before going on to illustrate exactly why such arrogance can be so damaging.  You see, that bluster quickly degenerates into “every person is an island” (Thatcher) and is often blinded to the build-up of serious problems (like the Credit Crunch).  Let’s not forget that Scottish banks were the worst offenders and have benefited most UK government bailouts.

The most insidious danger is that the ‘charity’ he highlighted becomes defined as what makes me feel better about myself, rather than genuinely considering what my neighbour needs.  Frankly, I was appalled that Graham used the amazing voluntary work going on in Moray, especially litter pick-ups, to score cheap political points and create an atmosphere of artificial optimism about our current situation.  Whilst we should never surrender to despair or cynicism, it is only right to acknowledge that these are very difficult times and – when troubles comes – they are best tackled together.

At Glasgow University, my first year politics lecturer explained a very important concept to me: subsidiarity.  Basically, this means that government – people coming together to make decisions for the common good – should happen at the most efficient and effective level.  For example, we try to have a united European Foreign policy because this one voice carries much greater weight on the world stage.  We are rightly proud to have a UK Defence Force that is top-class and makes best use of all the varying capabilities of this former island superpower.  Similarly, Olympics Team GB scores so spectacularly high in the medal table because we can share coaching facilities and expertise.

In Edinburgh, the SNP is correct to facilitate mergers of Colleges and Police Forces because it makes sound economic sense to avoid unnecessary duplication in Pay Roll and managerial functions.  Locally, the Moray Council should be addressing the appalling lack of bins on our streets.  But they appear to be too busy posing for pictures at those volunteer events in a vain chance of improving their PR.  Incidentally, I trust that all who care about that issue will make their views very plain in the Council’s current budget consultation.  Please, if you’re going to show at a litter pick-up, make sure you’re there to actually help out and work as hard as you can, not just chat to people for their vote!  Likewise, how can they take the opportunity to grandstand and bathe in the reflected glow of Heather Stanning’s achievements, whilst relying on volunteers to spearhead a bid for decent athletics’ facilities in Moray?

Please don’t misunderstand.  I love and applaud volunteering.  Be so encouraged in whatever you are doing to help others – it gives a joy little else can match.  However, it’s time that we properly scrutinised and called our governments to account for what they should be doing.  We’ve no time to waste dreaming of what could be with even more re-configurations of the political boundary lines.  Use wisely the powers and potentials we already have – don’t lust for more.

The more I consider and hear about what Independence means, the less I like the sound of Salmond’s vision for Scotland.  Do you know what I see when I look at the Union?  Two brothers – we like to bicker and play around a bit, banter off each other and enjoy a wee drink at the pub together.  Yes, we sometimes have our fall-outs, but we always resolves these like mature, sensible grown-ups.  We’re tied together by strong bonds of family, so we can easily drop in on each other, share the latest news and ideas, learn from one another’s mistakes (and successes), enjoy shared moments of achievement.
When I look back at our history, I see that Scotland has been strongest when we’ve been united to our siblings down south.  The Scottish Englightenment and our heroic last-ditch defence of the world against Hitler’s tyranny happened when we were collaborating most closely.  If anything, our demise as a powerhouse can be traced to the first rumblings of Independence.  The SNP’s first electoral test was in 1935 when they contested eight seats and one none.  Since then, they’ve been cutting deals and jumping on bandwagons, eventually winning enough seats in the Scottish parliament to force a vote that only a minority of the people actually want.  Recently, Salmond’s flip-flopped on all kinds of issues, desperate to please as many people as possible, so the glow will rub-off on his pet project.  Remember, a local income tax – good idea as it sorts out a manifestly unfair system.  That’s no longer talked about.  Then, there was the in or out of NATO question at their party conference.  If we want to eject Trident from Faslane, then it’s hypocritical to accept a nuclear defense shield from the world’s big boys.
But, do you know, I don’t think Salmond has a principled bone in his body.  In fact, all he seems to care about is Independence and becoming the first Prime Minister of Scotland.  Well, newsflash: those who are elect govern to serve the people, not the other way round.  Use the powers you already have to benefit Scotland.
For example, in the last year, I’ve written to politicians on a number of issues and nothing has happened.  Here’s the list of proposals that have struck me from my experience and I’ve tried research as best I can, with my limited resources:
1) set an ambitious target for the SQA to make all written exams computerised.  Technology helps us to communicate better, share ideas, collaborate and create.  Who, nowadays, actually hand-writes anything?  Unless you’re in school, spending years learning to write in a straight line, not to mention all the million and one rules of our English language that a computer can help you with.  You can edit, change and perfect a composition on the PC, but with a pen or pencil it’s much more laborious, leaving less time for anything else.
Why set a target?  Well, as a former English teacher, I know that teachers and pupils work best when faced with an exam – that’s what motivates the maximum numbers to study.  So, if exams are computerised and based on systems actually used in the real world, then we’ll be properly training our students to succeed.  We’ll still need to have proper Talk assessments – it’s important we can actually discuss, debate and present information face-to-face – but I’m afraid that handwriting is about as relevant to the 21st Century as calligraphy.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t teach people who want to how to write beautifully and artistically.  Imagine handwriting as on a par with painting.   The target drives change, so every child has all the access they need to computers from early in life because educationalists can see the long-term benefits.
What’s the bottom line?  In a global and competitive world, we need to utilise every possible advantage and stay ahead of the game.  This is one way…
2) negotiate a change in the law back to six-hours lawyer-free questioning of suspects – back in 2010, shortly after Salmond and his ilk came to power, a chap called Cadder in Glasgow decided that his “rights” were stripped away from him because he was briefly denied access to a solicitor whilst the police questioned him about a crime they strongly suspected he committed.  Now, these interviews were taped and recorded, so everything was totally above-board.  He was found guilty through the proper due process, but because (down in England and across Europe) there must always be legal representation, this valuable window was closed to coppers.
It’s tough enough trying to convict anyone for crimes committed these days.  I’m a big fan of community payback orders as well (volunteering for x number of hours, rather than being sent straight to jail in the first instance) so please don’t think I’m being down on law-breakers.  Yet, back to the central point, police need our help and support to protect us from those who break the law, which we (as a democratic society) can shape and shields us from many harms.  Surely, it’s about time for remembering that everyone has rights – to peaceful, crime-free communities and to know that those responsible for sticking-up the proverbial two-fingers to everyone else are actually brought to book?
3) prioritize the provision of better sporting and cultural facilities and coaching for everyone in our society. Look at what can be achieved with the Olympics. One small local example would be Cooper Park’s tennis courts.  Why on earth – after Andy Murray’s wonderful triumphs are we still having to pay to use?  These courts can only be accessed during opening hours, which are a little restrictive, especially in the long, warm summer days.  We need to start having ambition and encouraging productive recreation that keeps people fit, healthy and enjoying life.  The only stumbling-block is that Salmond has frozen any possible Council tax rises for the last few years.  That means that local government is so strapped for cash they have to keep finding new ways to balance the books as inflation rises – like parking charges – that any lost revenue becomes a big problem.  Again, the SNP has gone for the pleasing headlines, rather than allowing those closest to the people to actually make decisions in their best interests.  
 
So, who will you vote for next time?  Well, look at the policies, study the evidence and go with your gut.  

The Service Revolution – Cleaning-up “Broken” Britain

Personal Motivation

I would like you to help.  I am increasingly convinced of the need to actually do something about the problems blighting our communities.  The most obvious and, in one sense, easiest to fix is litter.  Three years ago, I moved to Elgin, Moray, from Easterhouse, Glasgow, and was so pleased to see how green, pleasant and clean everything seemed up here in comparison to back there.

Not anymore.  As someone who loves to walk around their local area, I can’t escape seeing the huge amounts of junk and debris discarded and disowned.  Nevertheless, rather than just lamenting or complaining, I have resolved to do what I can.  After finishing my day job as a Communication lecturer at Moray College, I frequently go out with garden gloves and some of the many plastic bags I have accumulated, picking-up whatever litter I find – mostly high-energy/alcohol drink bottles/cans or discarded fag packets.

Rationale

Now some might think this futile, but remember all that is required for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing, or be too caught-up in sorting issues far away they miss what is happening in their own backyard.  Local Councils cannot afford to spend badly-needed pounds in a vast, bureaucratic top-down cleansing exercise.  Already £65 million is frittered away on cleaning up what should not be there in the first place!  For those who persist in despoiling our beautiful environment, the best argument against their selfish indifference is to show mercy and actually help solve the problem.  Quite possibly, they may even be shamed into stopping when they see whole communities, or even brave individuals, taking positive action.  Suppose they did stop littering, there would still be a mountain of rubbish already out there that required an army of volunteers to roll-up their sleeves. You can, like myself, find out more about the situation in your area at www.litteraction.org.uk/ and register interest.

Clearly, better bins, stiffer fines and decent education on the problems litter causes would all help, but ask yourself: how does a child truly learn?  Not by being told repeatedly, though obviously education helps!  Instead, they imitate an example.  We desperately need positive role models.  As a Dutch criminologist, Josine Junger-Tas, once explained: “All it takes for the development of a normal personality is to have someone irrationally crazy about you. And it needn’t be a parent.”  We do NOT need more analysis of the root causes or even demonising of people, which only alienates those who are most desperately hurting inside and wastes precious time.  If born into their shoes, from a dysfunctional ‘family’ or repeatedly told they were ‘rubbish’ at school, we might be even more of a mess – but for the grace of God, there go I!  Suffice to say, the reasons are many, but the first step to a solution is more straightforward than we can possibly dare believe.

Inspiration

For inspiration and encouragement, I look to Christ Jesus.  You see, we so often miss the point that Easter is the culmination and climax of Christmas – God’s utterly astonishing, completely loving and totally undeserved gift to humanity of our Saviour.  As we approach Easter, I remember the One who was humble enough to wash His followers’ smelly, sweaty, sandaled feet – that motley band of odd balls, including duplicitous Judas.  This was the most menial of task for the lowest of slaves, but the first step that evening for the Lord to the cross.  There, in the teeth of most horrendous opposition, when all hope seemed lost, good triumphed over evil and love conquered hate on a Roman gibbet.  Christ cried out: “Father forgive them. They do not know what they are doing”.  He realised that even His most vicious enemies were simply ignorant and unable to see true love.

Down through the ages, many have refused to be silent – William Wilberforce, Ghandi, Martin Luther King – and endured the pains necessary to secure redemption for slaves, people bound in chains.  I believe that what holds individuals most captive today is basic selfishness.  Pride and greed choke out genuine compassion.  Yet, we cannot teach anyone to start loving or caring – only show them a good example to learn from.  Jesus recognised that the route to moral authority was through showing real, compassionate service.  Interestingly, in John’s gospel the servant act of feet-washing is followed by remarkable teaching that the disciples finally seem to actually understand as dialogue to resolve questions gives way to monologue.  Sadly, many within the walls of traditional church buildings are still to realise that love, expressed with actions and in truth, is the objective test of subjective faith.

Genuine Service

So, this Easter and beyond, whoever you say you follow, what can we do to genuinely serve?  Do not be fooled into playing the blame game, which seems fun for a moment but helps no-one.  Beware also those commentators, toothless soothsayers, who dissect the entrails of social issues and spout technical mumbo-jumbo, but never actually advocate a solution that involves them doing anything!  Watch out also for assuming we comprehend clearly what people’s needs are.  Unless we take the time to get to know individuals, being patient and listening to their lives, then we will be repeatedly confounded by the seeming complexities of the issues they face.

Nevertheless, when we see something clearly wrong – a paralysing fear, paranoia or compulsion – we must politely and firmly correct, and possibly even rebuke, that twisted thought which is causing hurt and distraction for the individual.  Just as doodles reveal children’s fears, we often can learn much from observing students’ timed exam papers, especially for Higher English Close Reading passages, when under pressure they disclose what could be seen as the “monkeys on their back”.  We begin, like Jesus, by connecting with current understanding (“You have heard it said…”) and then move to true revelation (“But I tell you…”) in our task to explode irrational myths.

Moral authority

Remember, at heart, people need to know you care.  Sometimes that involves practically assisting the student who is being ripped apart by loan sharks with money we’d only spend on more consumer junk, so they can clear their debts and start afresh.  On other occasions, mentoring is required where we address directly their actual fears and anxieties, providing reassurance and tackling the negative messages that pervade our media and society.  Yet, whatever we do must be focused on empowering people to live fruitful lives, not creating a dependency culture.  As the old Chinese proverb rightly discerns, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, but teach him the art of fishing and you satisfy him for a lifetime”.  We must never delude ourselves into thinking we’re too “clever” to care or such work is beneath our “dignity”.

Practically, we should realise the importance in teaching of gaining the respect of young people through seeking to genuinely serve their needs.  Individuals often need to know we care personally for them before they are willing to hear us share sound, yet challenging, instruction.  Interestingly, psychologist Scott Peck in The Road Less Travelled (1978) notes that, reflecting on his cases, the turning point in treating difficult conditions was showing he truly valued and was willing to serve his patient.  Looking back on my relationship with a troubled student, one significant moment was going to fetch a glass of water for her, after she made the request.  She seemed shocked when I returned, but that is what grace does and why I follow Christ.  There is still much ground to travel, but I feel progress has been much smoother since then.

All the small things – smiling, greeting personally, classroom posture, returning marking as promptly as possible, responding to their queries and such like all communicate this message.  For example, I often kneel down beside my student if no chair is handy because this helps to show humility and gentleness, which are important qualities I hope to inculcate by example.  We should also be encouraged that most students come to College with a willingness to learn and, in Moray at least, a natural respect of authority.  Yet, most will see straight through hypocrisy.  This is not a programme for mimicking to promote a spurious agenda, but some lessons I’ve learned through tough years of learning to teach.  The best “eureka” moments often happen when I am not conscious of overtly trying.

Nevertheless, preparation and planning is important.  I am putting together some discussion-based lessons on the importance of a healthy diet for students’ general well-being and I know that this will only penetrate if I am myself disciplined, gracious and willing to invest the time required for what is such a key priority.  In 2006, Britain wasted £26 billion in treating diet-related issues, such as tooth decay, heart disease and diabetes.[1]  I will need to share my own experiences of struggling to kick bad habits and the vital point: whatever treats we surrender must be compensated by worthwhile work, whether mental or physical.  Our energies need to be re-directed from self-gratification to endeavour.

The value of real labour

We need to recapture a sense of the value inherent in real work that positively impacts and transforms communities, making the world a better place one step at a time.  Whilst this should never be targeted specifically at the un- or under-employed, there is obviously a golden opportunity to restore their confidence.  This would also provide excellent material for students C.Vs, demonstrating a sense of civic responsibility, the ability to take the initiative and a strong work ethic.  Sadly, our celebrity culture and hedonistic lifestyles prioritise self-indulgence and paint whatever we do that is genuinely productive, like looking after our environment or helping a child learn, appear as a necessary evil.  This is reinforced by the pay-scales used to reward endeavour, which place front-line cleaners and teachers at the bottom.

Why has service been so badly devalued in our society?  It is considered a punishment fit only for criminals by our legal system, payback to communities, and businesses are only just starting to awaken to the mantra of meeting customer needs.  With pageantry and pomp we reward selected acts of public outreach, as embodied by our monarch, but this touches the lives of only an alarmingly small portion of our society.  Why are there many jobs no-one, except for immigrants, want to do?  In times when budgets are shrinking, vision needs to expand so that good deeds multiply.

The importance of inspirational symbols

One abiding memory of my Religious Education classroom was a poster that simply warned of the real danger when, to paraphrase, everybody assumed that somebody would do what anybody could do, but in the end nobody actually did anything!  Do you remember the powerful films “V for Vendetta” or “Batman: Dark Knight”?  In many ways this captured a real zeit geist of the age – that people need symbols to inspire them.  Think the solitary protester standing in front of China’s military juggernaut or the Tunisian man who set himself alight.  Sparks that set off great conflagrations.  However, this is very dangerous because where resentment at injustice festers too strongly, as amongst the poorest and most downtrodden, they can so easily be manipulated into great evil and lawlessness.

Tragically or providentially, depending on your perspective, millions in the U.K. are finding this stimulation and satisfaction in online, fantasy quests or passively watching movies, never participating or engaging with what is going on outside.  They need to be gently encouraged out into the real world and shown the satisfaction of actually and productively achieving life goals.  Britain needs local role models who will blaze a trail for others to follow.  I will not say heroes because that sounds unattainable and out-of-reach.  The Bible talks about discipleship, learning from one another and looking to the Ultimate Expert and Practitioner, Christ Jesus.

Personal freedom & harnessing creativity

We must always remember that some people are too busy or unwilling to follow, which is their choice.  Often, they will be engaged productively and they should not be made into scapegoats or guilt-tripped, as this does much long-term damage.  Good campaigns must be positive that is why picking-up litter is so amazing in being an act that is refreshingly simple, enabling the enjoyment of fresh air, providing exercise and a resulting in a real sense of achievement.  We are reclaiming and cleaning-up our own communities or green spaces.  All we really need is a pair of garden gloves (cost one or two quid), plastic bags (free – recycled from your local shop) and a willing heart.  Do not forget to stuff plenty of empty bags in your pockets as we will be shocked how quickly they fill-up.  Then dispose of these as soon as possible in the nearest rubbish receptacle.

Creativity is so important to any movement, meaning that we release the enthusiasm and ideas of individuals and communities.  Depending on the personalities, they could get together with a group of friends and enjoy some on-the-job banter, or plug themselves into some upbeat music on the move.  We need to show people they can start where they are and do whatever they can.  Obviously, we all have different amounts of physical strength and varying demands on our time, so no-one has the right to judge anyone else.  I know there are plenty of other issues and opportunities to serve wherever we are, so please be encouraged to make the most of whatever chances we have.

The simplified historical perspective

Every great movement in history comes back to the cross of Christ.  How did these early believers subdue the rapacious, violent Roman Empire?  As eyewitnesses like Tertuillian noted: “see how they love one another and are ready to die for each other”.  The power of this sacrificial love was unstoppable.  Sadly, at this point, the church was seduced by two very dangerous extremes: hermits and monks retreated into enclaves that made spirituality elitist and apparently unobtainable, whilst popes and bishops wielded secular authority that corrupted their character by blinding them to true service.

Gradually, as learning spread, the system became so blighted by penances, indulgences and consumerism that the Reformation re-introduced the concept of faith and the “crisis” conversion.  Suddenly, dissent was permitted and license to question authority introduced with devastating results in terms of conflicts that rent Christendom into shreds.  Jesus’ prayer for his disciples in John 17, “love one another, as I have loved you”, was conveniently forgotten as people sought to justify their positions at the point of a sword and mercenary interests again jumped on the band-wagon.  Yet, these forces would eventually topple kings and establish democracies, which served as powerful checks on individual ambition.

Another tipping point was the campaign to abolish slavery, led by the aforementioned William Wilberforce.  Now, the concept of freedom from chains and subjugation for all people was introduced into the discourse with a lasting legacy.  This license, however, was poorly defined as Enlightenment optimism blinded those who should have known better from the rest of the story.  We must live in communities where we serve one another’s needs and learn from each other, or we become introspective nomads, increasingly trapped by our insecurities and insignificance.  We are only truly free when loving another.  There are many accounts of black slaves, following emancipation, not knowing what to do and at a total loss as to how they should cope without the structure of servitude.

Interestingly, in the early 1960s this concept of love was dramatically highlighted by various movements, most notably the Christian charity, Operation Mobilisation, which recognised the need to unite gospel proclamation with actual demonstration of compassion in what their visionary leader, George Verwer described as a “revolution of love”.  Nevertheless, the concept was still too vague and misunderstood to be properly grasped.  One of its more warped forms was the “hippie” cult of pot-smoking, hair-brained, spaced-out emotion masquerading as right feeling.  The ancient Greeks have at least four different words for love and the highest form, agape service, is the one least commented on or pursued.

Human depravity

Yet what else chains people.  We cannot ignore the fact that there is something fundamentally crooked and “out of joint” in our world.  Thankfully, Christ provides an extensive list that repays careful study: “For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come – sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly” (Mark 7:21-22).  Definitions and unpacking are required.

Firstly, we must stress that, wonderfully, love covers a multitude of sins.  God’s grace to us in Christ Jesus offers free and full forgiveness.  We can be assured of His mercy as we care for and serve those around us, being channels through which His blessings pour.  How we treat other people is so crucial and should never be minimised: “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:12).  The pure, radiant, holy One was willing to come down and enter into our world of squalor, so that we all would glimpse true grace.

Whilst we should seek to understand and be convicted about the sin lurking within us, we must never wallow in our brokenness as God longs to make us whole by releasing us to serve.  The Master Surgeon’s scalpel cuts out the cancer in our hearts and saves the dying patient who is revitalised with new life.  Jesus, embodying and inaugurating the new covenant, shifted the focus from the letter to the heart of the law, thereby enabling real change.

Pride is clear-cut.  We so easily slip into the mistake of thinking we know everything, can do anything and are above correction – the infantile delusions of omniscience and omnipotence.  Boasting or bragging are also ridiculous when every good and perfect gift is from above.  Folly is any activity that is not genuinely productive and developing our God-given capacities.  For example, when I was younger and an incorrigible loner, I read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings at least six times.  This could also be understood as saying there is no hope, refusing to work, starving one’s self or any irrational activity.  I have on occasion been tempted to withdraw from society and just enjoy my own thoughts, but this would be incredibly stupid.  Similarly, the “Mock the Week”-style, supercilious sneering should be questioned – why are these people laughing at what should move us to tears and action?  How have we managed to create a whole “comedy” industry that pokes fun at those who try to solve serious socio-economic problems?  Of course, the courtly jester or fool was important in keeping the king’s feet firmly planted on the ground, but this function seems to be very adequately covered by a ruthless parliamentary democracy and free press.

Slander, gossip and lewdness are so obnoxious.  They might make the listener feel momentarily better, fantasising about seeing another fall or carnal lusts, but they spread negativity, pessimism and distraction to all who happen to hear.  Malice is also taking a perverse pleasure in seeing another brought low or fall, like the vultures who circulate around the corpses of crashed celebrities.  Teasing, taunting and bullying are all additional manifestations of what is truly awful.  I remember one situation when some strong-willed, older students were indulging in mockery of one another – the so-called “banter”. When observed closely, however, I was concerned that one particular young woman who would have been regarded as “pretty” ended up more often than not as the target. From my perspective, she seemed rather vulnerable because her fiancée in the Armed Forces was then away on Tours.  As a victim of much name-calling myself when younger – most agonisingly the “Red Retard” from a total stranger in S4 – I always feel enormous sympathy in these circumstances and try to correct this whenever possible.

Greed often displays itself in gluttony, or even the warped self-control of anorexia.  Other signs are hoarding possessions or the miser trying to save every single penny, which all result in simply not caring for people.  I believe capitalism is morally neutral: at its best, a chance for properly rewarding and incentivising good service; at its worst, an excuse for fleecing the poorest and vulnerable to inflate the bottom line.  The global financial crash has, temporarily at least, exposed this evil.  The resignation of Greg Smith on 14th March 2012 from Goldman Sachs is another electrifying symbol that could facilitate the reformation of capitalism.[1]

One of the less commented-on manifestations of deceit is the phenomenon observed amongst children of play-acting to attract attention.  Obviously, most grow out of this stage but possibly this maturation would be quicker if the underlying problem was directly corrected and rebuked.  Of course, lying is actively telling what is not true in order to gain an unfair advantage for self or another closely connected individual.

The most controversial today is, undoubtedly, sexual immorality.  I believe marriage – one man and one woman uniting together, becoming one, is an act so special, intimate and wonderful that we must never cheapen, mock or make fun of God’s gift.  This is the bedrock of stable families, society and future generations, which we tamper with at our collective peril.  Remember the salutary lesson of Frankenstein who disrupted the natural order in pushing the boundaries of knowledge and unleashed the monster he could not comprehend or accept.  Divorce or abortion granted under specific conditions, once permissible, quickly became the norm and a “get out” clause from personal responsibility, as can be observed in the statistics.  For example, there were 22,654 divorces in 1968 (on grounds of unfaithfulness or physical assault – set by Jesus Christ Himself).  By 1993 – where the subjective criteria were based on whether the relationship was “irretrievably broken down”, without any need for “proof of fault”, the figure stood at 165,018 – representing many more innocent children.

Platonic friendship or fellowship between those of the same sex is another remarkable reality of the human condition and one we must treasure and celebrate, rather than simply seeking equal recognition or status for all things under the sun.  Still, each must make their own decision as compulsion in matters of sexuality only breeds resentment.  We have been given the wonderful gift of free will and, those who agree that the natural order generally works best, must prove this truth through the reality of fruitful, productive lives and communities.

Recent theological developments have again stressed humankind’s role in stewarding and looking after God’s good creation.  Environmental concern is a noble aspiration and one that needs to be nurtured as a way that so many can re-connect with Biblical truth.  As with anything in the created order, this can become idolatrous, but the key is to ground our responsibilities in community.  We can be encouraged by the fruitfulness and fecundity of our planet, which means that there is enough to feed everyone (and incidentally make each individual a dollar millionaire).  Interestingly, many of Paul’s sermons, such as to the Athenians (Acts 17), begin by establishing common understanding of God as Creator and Provider, which leads into gospel proclamation.

Tragically, so much ink is wasted by commentators in trying to answer questions that simply must be classed as secondary.  How exactly was the world made?  When will it all end?  The Bible simply does not tell us.  Crucially, however, we are assured of fair and just judgement when God will ask account of each individual for what they have done with whatever He has given them on this earth.  If we are truly following Christ – living in love and hope that is inspired by our faith – then we have absolutely nothing to fear and much to eagerly anticipate.  Until that Day, we work with all our heart and mind at whatever we do, always conscious that we are to seek and labour for greater fruitfulness.  The key question: how exactly does this doctrine or exegesis practically make a difference?

In terms of picking-up litter obviously this only a small first step.  We need to be connecting with communities, visible for those who have never met us and actually seeing the issues they face on the ground.  Whilst walking and cleaning the streets, we are praying to meet and converse with people.  Every opportunity to challenge stereotypes about church must be utilised and God’s amazing grace should be our calling card.  We keep pointing to Christ, as we ask our Lord to show us how we can genuinely get alongside people and engage in Good News dialogue.  Remember, moreover, many are unsure about how to share their faith and this is such a natural way into deeper matters.  As a church, we should also be ready for following-up contacts made and welcome the involvement of other organisations.

Wider actions on litter

Whilst we must start at the bottom, we can clearly do more than just pick-up litter.  On a legal level, there are clear laws that require Local Councils, Network Rail, businesses and landowners to deal with significant accumulations of litter.  Council need to be alerted by citizens, reminded of their responsibilities, and find out more at http://www.keepscotlandtidy.org/documents/Leaflet-LitterAndTheLawInScotland.pdf.

We should also be pushing and working for regeneration of urban wastelands as that is where rubbish flourishes unchecked.  People’s environment obviously makes a difference to their mentality, but should never be used as an excuse.  How can you tell someone to look after their “wonderful” world if it looks like a dump?  Education, inspiring children and adults to see what we can all positively do, as well as taking responsibility for our actions, is another vital component that will require time, creativity and patience to achieve.  We need to move beyond the liberal principle of pursuing pleasure without harming another to discovering satisfaction in caring for each other.

Most importantly, we need to be empowering local communities to take action together as we live in such a fractured, divided society where people rarely think outside their little bubble of selfishness, encompassing “You and Yours”.  So, government and leaders of all kinds could organise and call a day of action where anyone and everyone is invited to go out together and do what they can to solve the problem, redeem our environment. The groundswell of support was already demonstrated in the clean-up after the riots in London, summer 2011, and by the existence of website or forums on the litter epidemic.

This is an initiative that no-one can really argue against and would be a powerful force for bringing together neighbours who have for far too long been strangers.  The magnificence of the plan is every able-bodied person can and should be involved.  This could be a tangible and strikingly beautiful sign that we will not tolerate the creeping moral rot of our society.  We could start to bridge the growing chasm between the haves and have nots, those who like to tell people what to do, without helping, and those who, understandably, rebel.

Do not just give them a “nudge”.  This will only stoke conspiracy theories and fuel distrust as individuals loathe manipulative hypocrisy.  Yet, the powers that be can work to create conditions where goodness can flourish, such as using the tax system to properly reflect the human cost of alcohol, tobacco or fatty foods.  Such an approach requires real rigour as those who feel persecuted will instinctively look for loopholes.  Currently, “Monster” and other energy drinks are filling the vacuum vacated by what is now increasingly declared taboo.

Government, authorities and communities are all actually here to assist us in living productive, fruitful lives – this must be the message and the clear example.  Looking to the Far East, countries such as China or Japan, we admire most the spirit of corporate endeavour in these countries, their sense of cohesion as individuals make sacrifices for the good of the whole.  We must do what we can to build-up communities who think globally but act locally.  God has placed us where we are for a reason.  Again, why do so many of our brightest and best leave Scotland?  If they have visited Africa, they are probably now disillusioned with the culture of selfish materialism in this country and long to be useful.  Of course, where those nominally in charge fail to provide leadership, others must assume the mantle and do what they can, though less effectively and requiring much more time.

In conclusion

Just ask yourself, do we want to live in a world where everyone becomes so obsessed with what’s on the flickering screens inside their cosy, little homes that the Great Outdoors suffocates under the mountain of litter?  Do we want to just zip past in our car or even on our bike, eyes closed to what’s all around us?  Will anyone else care if we do not?  Yes, people matter so much more than discarded consumer debris, but maybe this is the moment where we can actually all agree on the action point.  Please, just like Toby Ord recently encouraged us to “Give What We Can”[2], let us add in the “Do”.  As is often said, yet rarely put into practice, be the change.  Remember what is tried and tested: actions speak louder than words.  Take the next small steps on the journey outside self that will make a world of difference, metamorphosing what is hell on earth into what begins to look more like heaven.  True transformation wells-up from within but pours out to all around.

 


[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-17402964

[2] http://www.givingwhatwecan.org/

 

Where does charity begin (and end)? Letter of the Week (Northern Scot)

Dear world,

In  Moray College this week, I’ve been discussing with students Britain’s commitment to overseas development.  I was struck by their loss of perspective.  The UK government set aside 0.7% (£8.5 billion) of their 2013 budget to helping the poorest people in the world, such as the 90% of Malawi’s population who live on less than $2 per day.  Now a little cash out there can make a massive difference.  Oxfam offer you a locally-sourced and vaccinated goat – cost £25 (about half the price of a new computer game) – that will produce milk to drink and sell, fertiliser for crops, and offspring to sell at market in order to buy AIDS medicine.  What a bargain!

  Do we honestly believe that the UK’s problem is lack of cash?  In that same budget, the UK will spend an astronomical £126.2 billion on health care.  In particular, our population’s excess weight costs the NHS at least £4 billion every year.  Meanwhile, a 2009 study estimated the price tag for treating smoking-related illnesses at £5 billion p/a.
  Then, take a look at what is thrown away.  I find some very interesting stuff on my litter pick-ups and, according to historians, we can learn a lot about a civilization by examining their detritus.  Maybe there’s even opportunities for detective work?  Well, I’m certainly stumped.  I can’t understand why I keep finding unopened Muller corners and Kellogg’s brunch bars in a bush just off Reiket Lane.  They have been tossed away (and cleared-up) for about the past four months during school term.  I would estimate easily £50 wasted.  And what about the two full beer bottles found in a bush near Elgin bus station?  I ask again, is Scotland really financially impoverished?  

Owner Wanted!

Are you sure we need more money in the UK? What about actually being grateful and looking after what we have…

  You see, the truth is our me-first, consumer-centered, throw-away culture needs to be challenged.  Yes, enjoy the fruits of God’s good earth, but please look after all that we’ve been given, especially people.  Don’t just put money in pockets, but make Moray a place where human beings can work hard at worthwhile jobs that develop their skills, make new friends who broaden their horizons and (therefore) want to look after themselves and our planet.  I believe at the core of that vision is Christ Jesus who values each and every person enough to die for their wrong-doing, and teaches us all the best Way to live – from turning the other cheek to not worshiping money or what can be bought.
  Whatever you conclude about Him, I hope we can all agree that Moray (and our world) needs more than just the sticking-plaster of charity hand-outs.  Maybe the place to start – if you can – is this weekend’s community litter pick-up?