Learning to Think, Thinking to Learn

I hired a car for a few days over Christmas. It was the first time I’d driven in a year, and on the quiet holiday roads it was a truly pleasurable experience.

At some point I parked and noticed the car showed me a display of my “eco-credentials”. I wish I’d taken a picture at the time, because it gave me a score in the 90s, and my acceleration and anticipation marks were perfect. Sadly, later in the evening I took a long drive down a dark country lane which took the edge off my scores, so when the inspiration for this post came to me and I took the picture below, it was not as impressive as I’d hoped.

IMG_20181226_205022

Over the years I’ve learned to drive steadily, because doing otherwise serves no purpose. So I’m not surprised that my statistics remained quite good in the main. The interesting part of the display was my gear change score, which started relatively poor and didn’t improve.

Like many modern vehicles my car gave me a visual clue – a flashing gear stick icon – on the dashboard when it ‘wanted’ me to change gear. I didn’t notice very often because my eyes tended to stay on the road. But when it did attract my attention I became aware of what was going on, and what was hurting my gear score when I was convinced that I was driving smoothly.

When I learned to drive, about twenty years ago, my instructor taught me to listen to the engine, and said that the car would tell me when to change gear, either up or down, by the sound it was making. I found that the changing up spot would come between 2000 and 2500 rpm – usually towards the lower end of that range. This satisfied my instructor, and also got me through my test and my first nineteen years of driving.

But this Christmas, I found that my car was flashing its icon at me between 1500 and 2000 rpm, well before it sounded right for me to change up, and it would also tell me to change down when my senses and experience were telling me the engine was fine where it was. I tried to adjust, but it wasn’t easy unless I let my eyes linger on the dashboard much longer than felt safe. I expect it would take a few weeks for me to adapt my driving style to this new paradigm.

This got me thinking, asking myself why I was getting this simple task so wrong after all these years. Advanced motorists among you may have an immediate answer, but I was very interested in the range of possible explanations that occurred to me. They were:

  • Did I misunderstand the original instructions, but ‘got away with it’ when I was learning and being tested?
  • Am I remembering my instructions wrongly? My memory isn’t my greatest asset.
  • Was the instructor wrong?
  • Have cars changed over the last twenty years? Undoubtedly they have, so have improvements to engine design and efficiency changed the way they should be driven? And do different ‘rules’ apply to different cars?
  • Am I really just driving by ‘muscle memory’, through habits formed over years of experience, for better or worse?

Speculation about my driving technique is one thing, but as I thought about those questions it brought to mind another kind of instruction I’ve been receiving over the last ten years, which is of course Christian instruction – from reading the Bible or other books and articles, from Sunday messages, from small group discussions, and so on.

In the last decade I’ve moved home a few times, and as a result moved church as well. I’ve been a member of three different churches over those years. At each one there have been occasions where I was taught things that I was uncomfortable with at the time, or which I have come to doubt since.

Reflecting on this, I realise that the questions I asked myself about my driving are also pertinent to these teachings:

  • Did I misunderstand what I was being taught?
  • Have I misremembered what I was taught?
  • Was the teaching wrong? Even the best of us is human, and fallible. I’d love to believe that everything spoken from the pulpit is right and good, but I’m sure that mistakes are made. This reminds me of an occasion when I was in primary school. I don’t know how old I was, but I was very young! A teacher asked us what “USSR” stood for, and being rather too well-informed for my years I stuck my hand up and said “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” which the teacher promptly shot down and corrected me, informing the class that it actually stood for “United States of Soviet Russia.”
  • God doesn’t change, but the world does, and people do. I do. Does this affect what I was taught, or how it should be applied?
  • Has my experience of life, faith and God changed my perspective, beliefs and practices – or habits – for better or worse?

I think it is vital for all of us to consider these questions whenever something troubles us, either in our own understanding, or in what we learn from others, because not one of us has all the answers. We are all “looking through a glass, darkly,” we should all be “transformed by the renewing of our minds,” which is an ongoing, life-long process. There are some tenets of faith that are fundamentally true, while we can sometimes hold on to others that merely make us fundamentalists in the worst sense.

God, Have Mercy

I sometimes feel a little uncomfortable admitting that I have “favourite” passages in the Bible. I know it’s not something I should be uneasy about. Clearly different books, chapters and verses will have stronger resonance during different seasons of my life. And no doubt people who have lived different lives will be drawn to different parts of scripture, or God will speak to them in different ways than He does to me with the same words.

But there are some passages that are universal, and one of my favourites is such an excerpt. It is Luke 18:9-14, known as the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. When I say “universal” I really mean it, because not only can any Christian relate to it, but so can anyone of any faith, or of none, so long as they are not so deluded as to think themselves perfect.

I doubt that a day goes by during which I don’t have thoughts that correspond to the Pharisee’s. When I see someone make a foolish driving manoeuvre, or act rudely in a shop, or just express an opinion I disagree with. Sometimes I will literally think myself “better” than the other person, but often I’ll find myself thinking the same thing in that slightly more subtle, but maybe more pernicious way… “At least I am not like that person.”

And then I’ll catch myself, and realise how far I am from the pedestal I briefly put myself on. At this point a non-believer will berate themselves for their superciliousness. So will I, before figuratively beating my breast and pleading “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”

‘But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

‘I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

Luke 18:9-14

A Short Note About Goodness

As I walked down Chester Road towards the railway station this afternoon I heard the distinctive siren of an ambulance approaching from behind.

The road was quite busy, and one by one cars slowed down and moved to the side of the road, or even onto the pavement, to allow the ambulance easier progress.

All except one car, whose driver continued in an unchanging line, either ignorant or indifferent to what was happening around him.

Of course I wasn’t surprised. It’s a sad truth of human nature. And I’m not just talking about that driver, I’m talking about myself, and I’m probably talking about you.

Because here’s the sad truth. It’s not that I noticed that one selfish driver more than the dozen decent individuals. It’s not even that I expected someone to act that way. The sad truth is that I was looking for them.

This is how many of us are brought up. It’s how we are conditioned by the media and our society. And yes, it may well be built into our very nature. We find ourselves always looking for the bad and pointing it out, while we are seemingly blind to the good that surrounds us constantly.

Whether it’s that driver who cuts you up, the neighbour who causes a noise nuisance in the dead of night, the politician caught in scandal or the corrupt businessman. These are all exceptions. It’s not true to say “they’re all the same,” it’s truer to acknowledge that we notice their differences, and to understand that the news will report the abnormal rather than the everyday.

God is good, and He made us in His image. That image has become distorted but the goodness is still there, and we would do well to recognise that, and thank Him for the goodness in the world, in ourselves and in each other.

A Distraction

I feel the tension rise when I’m told this or that is a ‘satanic symbol’. There’s a part of me that appreciates the warning, remembers 1 Peter 5:8, and wants to avoid being devoured by the roaring lion.

But another part of me knows that symbols are nothing in themselves, that they are given meaning only in a particular context, and in the minds of those both using and viewing the symbol.

8ae1bdc7fe0790fd89c4c5baf9a080ef

An ‘x’ next to a schoolchild’s algebra solution means the answer is wrong. At the end of a message inside a greetings card it symbolises love. In front of the letters ‘mas’ it either means Christ, or that the perpetrator is trying to secularise the festive season.

Famously the swastika was an auspicious symbol in many Eastern religions, especially Jainism, for thousands of years before Hitler chose it as an emblem of Nazism and Aryan supremacy.

So I’m ambivalent about symbols, and this is how I rationalise my response:

Jesus is The Way. I can picture my Christian journey as a road I’m driving along, and I pray that I’m travelling in the right direction – along The Way.

There are signs along the road that are helpful to me. Sometimes the signs tell me I’m still on course. These signs might be answered prayers, small miracles or inner peace and other fruit of the Spirit.

There are more signs that warn me that I’ve taken a wrong turn, when the Spirit convicts me, or when a brother or sister corrects me.

And then there are signs that divert me. The temptations. The signs that promise me a short cut, an easier route, or the chance to take a break from the journey.

These are all signs that I need to be aware of and understand so that I don’t become lost.

And then there are the distractions. Satanic symbols are in this category. So are many church ceremonies and traditions, and denominations. In this world there are a lot of distractions.

The distractions are like advertising hoardings. They say something that may or may not be interesting or useful, but if you keep your eye on them for too long you will naturally find yourself driving towards them. That might lead to a crash, or just an uncomfortable ride, but it won’t lead to anything good. So although I might give them a glance and a thought, I want to keep my eyes on the road and The Way.

Confessions of a Hypocrite

“…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…”

Romans 3:23

How true! There are a number of sins that I would guess every one of us is guilty of on a regular basis. Pride for example, which is probably at the root of so many others.

But one that I am particularly aware of in my own life is hypocrisy. I don’t like it. In fact I hate it, and when I see it in myself I berate myself immediately and forcefully and pray that I won’t fail that way again.

But I do. It’s too easy. There are too many opportunities. As soon as get myself right in one respect I find myself failing in another.

And the one place where I find myself failing on a daily basis is on the road.

In The Car
http://www.freeimages.com/photographer/kasko-29347

I’m sure that I am far from unique in this respect. When I’m driving I become the worst of all hypocrites. I condemn fellow road users in my mind or out loud for driving too fast or too slow, for aggressively overtaking, for tailgating, for poor lane discipline, dangerous parking, unnecessary horn-blowing, queue-jumping and any other bad driving habit you can name.

And every time I do so, I immediately remember that I have been guilty of every one of those transgressions myself. Some I have managed to put behind me, some I only succumb to every now and then, but one or two seem to be ingrained. I can train them out of myself, but sooner or later they creep back in.

I know I need to improve. I recognise that I’m worse when my mood is low. I see that I’m better when I have a passenger, or worse when I’m in a hurry. And when I drive badly I don’t hide it from myself. I acknowledge it and tell myself to try harder next time.

I want to be a better driver, and if I really put my mind to it I’m sure I could keep improving for as long as I’m fit to sit behind a steering wheel. But what I want even more is to show grace in my response to others who are just like me – who may be having a bad day, or who are unfamiliar with a particular road layout, or who just made an honest mistake, or who have any number of other reasons why they did what I myself did yesterday or will do tomorrow.

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

Matthew 7:12