When Communication Breaks Down

A recent incident upset me considerably. I’ll describe it later, but first I want to talk about some of the thoughts that came to me as I analysed what had happened. I still find it hard to understand how two people with good intentions can become so incensed by a conversation that they agree not to speak to each other again, but it happened. And neither of those people did anything wrong. What happened was all about misunderstanding and miscommunication. I’ve seen the issues before, in my life, in church, and in society. There are many ways that communication can break down. Here are three that I see most often. I know I’ve discussed them with friends before, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve written about them too, in other contexts.

Simple v Complicated

I’ve been frustrated so many times when I see people consider a simple thing as complicated, or a very complicated thing as simple. I do it myself, especially the first of those, as I have a strong tendency to overthink. It becomes a problem when a “simplifier” and a “complicator” can’t see the validity of each other’s perspective.

There are a couple of Biblical examples to illustrate the point. Actually you could probably use just about any scriptural extract for this purpose, but these are my go-to examples.

First, Genesis, and specifically creation. The simple view is that God created the heavens and the earth, and everything in them, in six twenty-four hour days, and we know this because the Bible – the Word of God – tells us so. A more complicated interpretation is that this is a poetic representation of creation, written to explain our place in the universe, and the thought and design that went into it. The complicated view says that we can use scientific tools and methods to explore the physical nature of the universe and its origin, but that scripture tells us the meaning behind it, and its spiritual nature.

I subscribe to the “complicated” view. I don’t believe God has allowed us to be so fooled by false evidence or assumptions that everything science has explained so far is wrong. On the other hand, I accept that none of us were here at the point of creation, and there can always be room for doubt, so I wouldn’t mock anyone for having a “simple” literal view, but I would expect them to respect my opinion, and appreciate our common ground – our understanding that “In the beginning, God…”

Second, there is the whole notion of “Christian living.” Here, the complicated view is what you hear in churches across the world for 20-60 minutes every week. It’s what you read in the thousands of Christian books published every year, of which I’ve bought plenty. It’s everywhere, all the time, explaining how we should respond to the difficult moments in our lives, or the beautiful moments, or the big issues in a changing world. It’s what I’ve written about in most, if not all, of my blog posts.

The simple view is Matthew 22:37-40 – Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

I haven’t always done so, but I now subscribe to the “simple” view. Why should I tie myself in knots wondering what God thinks of every decision I make, or whether I’m saved, or what happens after I die, or why there is evil? The best I can do, in fact all I can really do, is to try to love God and people. That’s hard enough sometimes! And I fail often, but I’ll keep trying, because in my heart I know it’s right. The other questions interest me, obviously, or I wouldn’t keep writing about them, but if I devote too much time to studying them in hope of finding a complete answer, I’ll be losing the opportunity to live the abundant life Jesus promised me. Some people find the very meaning of their lives in studying the hard questions, and that’s fine, but sometimes apparently “thoughtful” interpretations of the Bible lead to “simplistic” and dangerous outcomes where I have to question just what some people think it means to love your neighbour. That’s a topic for several other posts.

You don’t need a faith to struggle with simple v complicated. In the political world it happens all the time, particularly when complex interconnected socio-economic issues are reduced into politically convenient soundbites. In community life I feel that the opposite is more common, as we make simplistic judgements and assumptions about people without regard to the complicated difficulties they may be facing behind closed doors.

God (and the devil) v Humanity

Is the heading too controversial? I don’t think so, because I think many people have peculiar and irrational ideas about the balance of natural and supernatural input to our lives.

On the one hand, I’m bound to say that an atheist, or really anyone who lives as if God doesn’t exist or doesn’t care, is storing up trouble for themselves. I don’t want to fall into a simple/complicated trap and suggest that I or anyone can be sure of the consequences. I just believe that God is real, and does care, and so I think it’s wise to live with that in mind. But people can go too far the other way.

I’ve said many times in this blog that God is not a puppet-master. We are free agents who can make any choice we wish – including the choice to submit ourselves completely and become “slaves of Christ.” I do believe that God will sometimes open doors – but we choose whether to walk through them. He sometimes stirs our spirits in a particular direction, but we choose whether to acknowledge those stirrings or to go our own way. I’ve no doubt that occasionally God will make a direct intervention, and put someone in a particular place at a particular time for a particular purpose. But His plan for His creation doesn’t depend on any one of us, nor does He hand us each the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and expect us to put the pieces together. I’ve seen people waste years of their lives waiting for God to speak or act, or trying to work out what God’s purpose is for them. If only He would whisper in their ears, “Matthew 22:37-40. Now get on with it!”

Equally, I’ve heard too many people blame the devil for every bad thing that happens to them. Ironically this belief actually does the devil’s job for him, because it is a lie that plants seeds of doubt and fear, suggesting he is more powerful than he actually is. I believe that the vast majority of bad breaks come down to bad decisions by human beings, whether it’s ourselves, those around us, or those that govern us. Blaming the devil gets human beings off the hook and stops us trying to make better decisions.

Trust v Suspicion

People make bad decisions, but I believe we are all made in the image of God, and fundamentally that means we are good rather than evil. We have self-interest, certainly, but we also have compassion for others, and rarely act or speak with bad intentions. We may be misguided. We may be emotional. We may be mistaken. Any of these or other reasons could lead us to make those bad decisions and treat people wrongly.

Circumstances are important. Someone may be completely honourable in their personal life, but in their profession their self-interest becomes an overriding factor and leads them to act deceptively.

But in general, unless circumstances or experience says different, I would choose to trust people. I’ve heard church leaders say the opposite, and that is very worrying.

When Communication Broke Down

As I usually try to do, I’ll keep this very vague. The details aren’t important, the process is. So the second person in the story is unidentifiable, although if they read this post they’ll recognise themselves immediately. The first person is me.

I met a friend and had a long and rewarding conversation. A couple of days later they wrote something online, and because of the timing of the statement it seemed feasible that it could be referring to me. I honestly thought it was unlikely, and an embarrassing topic to bring up, but at the same time, if it was about me it would have been wrong, and possibly cruel, to ignore.

So, as gently as I could, I asked. And unsurprisingly I was wrong. I thought that was the end of the matter, but the subsequent text exchange proved it was just the beginning.

After a few more days they asked why I’d thought what I did? I said it was the curious timing and circumstances, and I was sorry for jumping to conclusions. This wasn’t enough, it made no sense to them, they needed to know why. So I tried to unpick and describe step by step what my thought process had been, acknowledging again when those thoughts had been wrong.

This didn’t satisfy my friend either. Other friends haven’t had the same thought, so why had I? What was going on?

Eventually I couldn’t see any good way out of the situation. None of my reassurances were being accepted. First my friend was turning a simple mistake into something far more complicated. And then they took the approach of treating me with suspicion instead of trust. I said we should call it a day and they agreed.

Well I thought that really was the end, but there was a sting in the tail. After a few days my old friend wrote something else online, referencing the different ways the devil was attacking them. It was clear that not everything was about me, but I was in there somewhere. It appeared that they had many issues that I would have liked to help with but I’m not the right person, so I hope and pray that they get what they need.

It’s no great revelation to see that when communication breaks down, so do relationships. It’s also clear to see that they can only be mended when both parties want it to happen and can get themselves on the same wavelength. And it’s just a sad fact of life that this can’t always be the case.

Thoughts on Genexis 2019 – Beginnings

I was excited to hear about Genexis – a series of talks at Coventry Cathedral aimed at presenting “an evidence based case for a creator God.” If you’ve read many of my posts I expect you’ll know that I have a sincere interest in apologetics, and this was a rare opportunity to hear the arguments, and the evidence, in person and close to home, presented by renowned experts. The talks continue on Mondays throughout September, people of “all faiths and none” are welcome, and the tickets are free, though very limited now. It’s my intention to write some thoughts here on each of the sessions. I’m not expecting to give lengthy reviews or to delve too far into the topics myself, as this is something I naturally do in the course of my thinking and writing. But hopefully I’ll give a small flavour of the sessions, and my strongest take-aways from them.

The organisation and presentation of the first session was encouraging, my ticket was quickly scanned and I was able to find a seat fairly close to the front, although large screens were available to give a good view to the whole audience, as well as showing helpful illustrative slides. The atmosphere was welcoming, and there was clear encouragement for the idea of asking difficult questions and thinking critically about the given answers, rather than just accepting any “information” given, either religious or not, on the basis of “blind faith.” The format of the evening was a series of introductions about the event and the speakers, leading to Sir Stephen Males talking about the nature of evidence and expert witness (he is a judge in the Court of Appeal of England and Wales) before he introduced the main speaker, Professor Ard Louis. Professor Louis then presented his evidence for God in the creation of the universe, before taking a few pre-selected questions from the audience.

I made an audio recording of “Beginnings” but unfortunately the sound quality is dreadful. I hope that video of the talk will be made available in the near future.

To start at the ending, I left the cathedral at the end of the evening feeling disappointed. On further reflection, I realised that this was based on natural but unrealistic expectations I had brought to the event. Because what I was hoping to find was something irrefutable – the silver bullet that could destroy the atheist argument once and for all. Of course this wasn’t going to happen! It’s very frustrating, but I’ve written some previous thoughts about why this might be necessary. Maybe I’ll try to get a question into a future session on this subject though, as I’d like to get a second opinion.

Ard Louis is a theoretical physicist. His topic was ostensibly “creation” – how the universe came into being, and how this points to a creator God. I think this specific point actually took up quite a small proportion of his presentation. This is understandable, because while it is possibly the most fundamental aspect of the “does God exist” question, it is probably the hardest area to actually find “proof” for, due to the limitations of observation, and the laws of physics (more on those later).

Louis first described the huge size of the universe, and then went on to talk about the origins of the “Big Bang” theory, including a very helpful presentation slide showing the size of the universe over time – which really put the concept of “inflation” into context for me – I’ve always had a soft spot for astrophysics.

He then discussed the question of where the universe came from, and suggested that this was in fact the wrong question, and we should really ask where did the laws of physics come from? This is because those laws are apparently what brought about the big bang, and also because (as a later session will detail) they are extraordinarily well tuned for the purpose of allowing life to exist. He said that this points to two possibilities – a multiverse, or a Creator.

So where did the laws of physics come from? No one knows definitively, but Louis described three plausible answers to the question, which I will paraphrase here.

  1. They have always existed
  2. They randomly came into existence from nothing
  3. They were designed by an external intelligence

Louis admitted that all three of these possibilities are troublesome in their own ways, but he found the third answer the most coherent and compelling.

And that, I suppose will be the theme of the whole series of talks – which answers are most coherent and compelling? Given that some truths are unknown (and possibly unknowable) where does the balance of the evidence point? Our own “instinctive” answers will be based on the worldview that we have adopted, but we always need to keep our minds open and question our assumptions, or else we will fall into the “blind faith” trap, and that is neither scientific or Biblical.

“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” 1 Peter 3:15

A significant percentage of the talk dealt with the supposed conflict between science and faith. I can’t recall a time that I was convinced that such a conflict existed. To my mind they are largely looking for answers to different questions, in two different realms – mechanism and meaning. But Louis also gave many historical and contemporary human examples to demonstrate the fallacy.

These were presented in a section he called “zombie myths” about faith and science – zombies because no matter how many times you cut them down they keep coming back. This section gave me my most satisfying moment, when a truth I was instinctively aware of was articulated in a way that I’ve never managed to do. This is the myth of the “pink unicorn” as Louis put it. Basically it’s the criticism that believing in a creator God is the same as believing in a pink unicorn, or a tooth fairy, or a flying spaghetti monster.

The response is so simple. These comparative examples are constructs “within” the material universe. They are figments of imagination, just as I can imagine a phone that transforms into a car when I touch it with my nose. Such an object or creature cannot exist unless it evolves or is built. A creator God by contrast, and by definition, exists outside of the universe and does not need to be bound by the physical laws of His creation.

I think this is also suggested in the Bible, for example in John 4:24 – “God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

Maybe I still haven’t articulated the rebuttal very well, but then I’m not Ard Louis!

I’m looking forward to the next three Genexis evenings, which will each contain two sessions. I hope I’ll do justice to them in my future posts.

Daily Reflection – Conclusion

I made it! I succeeded in posting every day for two weeks, and my timing only slipped at the end of the period.

The discipline of regular writing, as well as the subject matter, has given me a lot to think about in itself.

First, I sometimes felt uncomfortable with what I was sharing on what is supposed to be a Christian blog. If I recognised biblical echoes I would share references or scripture fragments, but to some extent it felt like I was indulging myself.

Is that such a bad thing? Isn’t that one purpose of a blog – to reveal yourself and your ideas to the world? Isn’t it everyone’s right to respectfully express themselves? And isn’t God interested in every aspect of our lives – so there shouldn’t really be a sacred/secular divide? I think the answer to all three of those questions is yes, but I still worry.

Second, I opened myself up in a lot more detail than I am used to doing, even with most friends and family. I think it was time to do it, but it wasn’t easy. On the other hand, censoring myself would have been even harder, and would have bled the authenticity out of my words. I don’t expect all my future posts to be quite so revealing, but now that a door has been unlocked I should feel able to talk more freely in the future whenever necessary.

Third, I think there were times when I reached the limit of my mental energy during this exercise.

It might seem strange, when I typically wrote just a few paragraphs, but I would often finish writing simply because I couldn’t summon the energy to continue developing the thoughts I’d embarked on. It was frustrating because I would often know there was much more I wanted to say, to expand or clarify on my reflections, but I knew that if I carried on I would lose structure and my words would turn into some kind of stream of consciousness, which might have been interesting on some level, but would have weakened the points I was trying to get across.

What I’m trying to say is that I’m still fragile.

Fourth, despite these struggles and concerns, I feel liberated by the experience of the last fortnight. I’ve known for a long time that I want to write more, one way or another, and this has confirmed that desire. I don’t know what form my writing will take in the future, but it will develop.

Looking to the future of this blog in particular, I can only continue to represent Christ as well as I’m able, and to share my thoughts on Him, and how He shapes me, and how He carries me through the storms of life.

I feel a great responsibility whenever I write. My readership may number in the dozens or low hundreds, compared to the millions influenced by some in this world, but every one of my readers matters to me. I want to be true to myself and my God. I want to be a friend and a comfort to some, and a thought-provoking challenge to others. None of us have all the answers, but hopefully I can at least ask some of the right questions.

Thank you for sharing this leg of my journey. You’ll be hearing from me again, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of my life.

The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.’

Exodus 14:14 NIVUK

‘I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.’

John 16:33 NIVUK

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4:1‭-‬4‭, ‬6 NIVUK

Daily Reflection – Endings

I’ve never been good at goodbyes. When ending a meeting or conversation I usually try to have the last word, not because of my big ego, the opposite in fact, as I want to be sure the other person knows that I’ve acknowledged their last words.

More seriously, I have the issue I described in my “attachment” post a few days ago. Letting go of relationships, even when I see the harm they are doing me, is very hard.

I’ve also been prone to avoiding some relationships altogether because of the inevitable end. I’m think of pets, which I’ve not wanted to share my life because I don’t want to see them die. For the same reason I’ve resisted getting too close to people who are old or very ill. I’ve missed out on so many opportunities to experience precious moments, and I’ve robbed others of such moments because of my fear, or should I call it my selfishness?

I think I had this fear even before the death of my father. He passed away suddenly, and much too soon, when I was in my late twenties. I had moved away from my hometown so I wasn’t there when he left us. I remember seeing him at the funeral home and kissing him goodbye. I don’t remember what I felt. I probably just felt emptiness. It’s strange (or is it?) that I don’t fear my own death so much as the death of others.

Accepting that everything ends is so important. It’s the only way to truly appreciate what we have now, and now is all we have in this world. Sometimes I think I’ve learned to accept it, but more often I know I have a long way to go.

All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan. Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away. If only we knew the power of your anger! Your wrath is as great as the fear that is your due. Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

Psalms 90:9‭-‬12 NIVUK

What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no-one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil – this is the gift of God.

Ecclesiastes 3:9‭-‬13 NIVUK

Daily Reflection – Rest

I started travelling home from my holiday yesterday evening. I had an overnight stopover in Zurich and got maybe an hour’s sleep. Soon after I arrived home I lay on my bed and fell asleep. Not long ago, eleven hours later, I woke up.

My head feels virtually empty. That’s actually quite a pleasant feeling, as I’m so used to it buzzing with a dozen conscious thoughts at once.

So today has been a day of rest, literally, and I’m happy about that. I’ve been very active physically over the last week, walking many hours a day. But my mind has also been busy. I’ve been planning my days, my routes, my priorities. I’ve been trying to take in and appreciate everything I’ve experienced during the week. And I’ve also been continuing to reflect on aspects of my mental life and well-being, as written in this blog.

Whether we call it Sabbath, the weekend, a day off, we all need rest for both our bodies and our minds. I can’t say any more without turning the ignition key in my brain, and honestly I’d rather keep it in the garage for the rest of the day. I’m not sure about the quality of that metaphor. If it’s poor, please excuse me but today my head is taking a well earned rest.

Daily Reflection – Regret

I read a very interesting article about regret last night. I read it again just now, and could strongly relate to many of the ideas described. I would only take issue with one line – where the phrase “saints or stupid” is used, I would replace it with “lacking empathy or self-awareness.”

Apart from that I couldn’t articulate the concepts better than the professionals quoted in the article, so I’ll just add a few comments from my own experience.

I don’t think I’m unique in having a complicated relationship with regret. Since my teens I’ve swung between times of being crippled by it so that life feels unbearable, and moments when I’ve genuinely said “I can’t regret anything, because if I’d done anything different I wouldn’t be who I am, where I am, now.”

In the latter case, those were days when I could truly say “I like myself”, which hasn’t always been so. But even then, I think it’s very rarely that I could have said “I love myself,” and I’m beginning to understand how difficult it is to really love others, and receive their love, if you don’t love yourself. The golden rule (Luke 6:31) points to that truth. So even at those times I should have regretted that I didn’t see myself as God does.

And anyway, as so often, reality lies somewhere between those extremes of perception. None of us are perfect, and so it’s necessary that we must have regrets. Think about it. With no regret, there would never be a reason to say “sorry” to anyone. Who among us has never needed to apologise?

But equally, regret can be misguided. As the article says, and I’m learning, we make decisions based on the information we have at the time. If we make a wise and kind decision then there is no point in regretting it later, even if another may seem better in hindsight, even if we need to apologise later for hurt that was caused. We will be better informed next time.

Sometimes though, our motives are wrong, and our decision reflects that. It is healthy to regret those moments, and to learn from them.

I think the best we can do is to examine our motives and try to make those wise, kind decisions at every opportunity. And to accept with grace and humility that sometimes we’ll fail. I have a strong tendency to over-analyse decisions, which leads to anxiety and inertia. I need to learn to trust my instincts and my conscience more willingly, as my self-doubt is one of my chief causes of regret.

Daily Reflection – Promises

As a Christian I’m not sure if I’m supposed to have heroes, except for Jesus of course, and the “heroes of the faith.” Well I had an earlier life in which I picked up a few heroes, and one of them, for better or worse, was Frank Sinatra.

Yesterday evening one of his lesser known albums came to mind, and this morning I lay in bed and listened to it. I just want to talk about it, so I’m not sure exactly where this will go.

The album is “A Man Alone”. It’s quite extraordinary, and if all you know of Sinatra is the Rat Pack, Las Vegas or the Bobby-soxers, it should challenge some of your assumptions about his work. Its subtitle is “The words & music of McKuen” referring to the poet Rod McKuen. It’s a gentle album of songs and poetry reflecting on a life free from the encumbrance of a lasting relationship.

When I discovered the album, as a man alone in my early twenties, it spoke to me on two levels. First I would fantasise about being the protagonist in songs such as “Love’s Been Good To Me” and “The Beautiful Strangers”. I would imagine that in thirty years time I would be able to sing those songs having lived that life.

And I would contrast this with my own life at that time, perfectly exemplified in a poem/song such as “Empty Is.” Sinatra and McKuen were telling me they understood where I am, but hang in there because they also knew where I was going, and it would be a great ride.

As I listened this morning I heard something subtly but profoundly different. I heard the story of a man who had started his adult life with high hopes but who had been let down by broken promises. As a result of this he made a decision not to rely on anyone but himself. He would be kind and loving to others but he would always protect himself from hurt. He would enjoy the freedom of singleness to the full, and not allow himself to fall for promises or commitments that could too easily be broken.

And yes, he enjoyed his life, liaising with different women in different cities. Not tied down, he could live his life on his own terms.

But the good times were not fulfilling. They were a shallow façade, and not far under the surface was an emptiness that would come to haunt him in his solitary times. The man is looking back with a mixture of appreciation and regret. I feel that he’s trying to justify his decisions while in his heart he knows that he missed out on something deeply special because he couldn’t trust another promise.

He makes the distinction between being “alone” and “lonely” more than once. It’s true that they are not the same thing, but it’s clear from the narrative of the album that one has led to the other.

“A Man Alone” was recorded one year before I was born, when Sinatra was just a few years older than I am now. His voice has started to lose its power, and the fragility of his singing at times accentuates the poignancy of the message. At the same time, as an Academy Award winning actor, he brings real emotion and clarity to the spoken passages.

One of the tracks that persisted in my mind yesterday was the poem “From Promise to Promise.” A short piece, which as I’ve suggested, triggers a fateful decision by the narrator, it got me pondering the nature of promises.

As usual, there is far more to be considered than I can write here. Maybe that’s good, as you can take these thoughts and apply them to your own experiences, rather than getting too entangled in mine. My thoughts, my questions, are

  • Who has hurt me most with broken promises?
  • Was it their fault, or did circumstances get in the way?
  • Did I respond with grace?
  • Which promises have I broken over the years?
  • What would I promise now, or in the future, and which promises would I avoid making?
  • How will I respond to the promises of others from now on?
  • What promises have I made to myself, and how many have I broken?
  • What has God promised me?

From Promise to Promise

I sometimes wonder why people make promises they never intend to keep
Not in big things, like love or elections, but in the things that count –
The newspaper boy who says he will save an extra paper, and doesn’t
The laundry that tells you your suit will be ready on Thursday and it isn’t
Love, well yes, but like everything else, we go from day to day
We move from promise to promise
I’ve had a good many promises now, so I can wait for the harvest
And some of them, they come about

Rod McKuen