Wednesday, 28 September 2011

What we can learn from the ‘bipolar’ penguin

Photo credit: Martin St-Amant/Wikipedia

Penguins are my favourite animals. From the time I could talk, family zoo trips centred around one thing and one thing only: penguin feeding time. Nothing came between me and my penguins.

After years of study, the conclusion I’ve come to is that penguins are kind of bipolar. On land they waddle in such a delightfully ungainly way it almost breaks my heart. Even fully grown penguins look like clumsy toddlers when they’re on the ice.

But once they’re in the water they are sublime. They glide through the water with utter grace and ease. If you’ve ever been to an aquarium where they swim over your head you will understand the true joy that only penguins can bring.

I think humans can be a bit like that too. When we’re doing something we love we dive straight in. But if it takes us out of our comfort zones we take much smaller, waddlier steps, praying no-one will push us in.

So what can we do about this? Well first, we should make the most of the skills we have. Whether you’re a great doctor, a talented musician or a meticulous cleaner, it’s great to use our gifts to benefit ourselves and others.

In Matthew 25:14-30, Jesus tells a story about three servants who are given ‘talents’ (coins) to look after, and grow, for their master. The first two double what they were given, while the third simply buries his in case it gets stolen. His ‘lack of talent’ results in his coin being taken from him and given to one of the others, who is sure to make use of it. The message is simple: use it or lose it.

Now I don’t like to boast, but I’m an expert hugger. Even before my penguin craze began, my parents could pass me to anyone and I would throw my chubby arms around their necks with glee – to the great surprise of several Santas we visited. It’s something I enjoy for the effect it produces in me and because is an act of giving to someone else. Simple as it is, I believe this is a gift and I intend to use it.

Photo credit: Ken Funakoshi/Wikipedia

But what happens when we’re tested in an area of minus talent? Ask me to evacuate a spider or climb a tall building and I will fall to pieces (not literally in case you thought that was another of my gifts). Ask me to draw a picture or play the oboe and I’ll just laugh. Give me a medical chart and a scalpel and I’ll run away as fast as I can (not very, as chance would have it).

So should I berate myself for my shortcomings? I don’t think so. We can’t be good at everything, right? But there are three important principles here. The first is that we shouldn’t accept failure without giving things a good go. Didn’t your granny tell you that “if you don’t at first succeed, try, try, try again”?

Secondly, if it’s something we’re not good at but NEED to be, we should ask for God’s help. Peter didn’t think he could walk on water until he gave it a go and fixed his eyes on Jesus (Matthew 14:22-33). It was his fear that nearly drowned him, not his (or God’s) inability.

Finally, God can work through us whatever our limitations. Just look what Moses achieved despite having a severe speech impediment. Paul points out that God’s power is actually made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).

So rather than doddering by the side of the pool like penguins, stumbling over every obstacle in our way, let’s jump in and at least make a big splash. We might not be graceful gliders right away, but it’s better to try and fail than not to try at all. We can trust God to do the rest.

Please feel free to leave comments. You can read more from Joy in the next issue of Sorted magazine and in its sister publication, Liberti. If you love penguins, you'll love this clip.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Divorce is ok if your spouse has Alzheimer’s… isn’t it?

Pat Robertson Photo credit: (Paparazzo Presents/Wikipedia)

Controversial televangelist (yes, that is a real word) Pat Robertson has caused uproar by suggesting that divorcing a spouse with Alzheimer's may be permissible.

During a question and answer session on The 700 Club, the show he hosts, Robertson was asked what advice should given to a viewer’s ‘friend’ who started seeing another woman after his wife developed the incurable disorder.

"I know it sounds cruel, but if he's going to do something, he should divorce her and start all over again, but make sure she has custodial care and somebody looking after her," Robertson responded.

Questioned by co-host Terry Meeuwsen about this view in relation to marriage vows, which are binding "in sickness and in health" and "for better or for worse", Robertson’s response is even more controversial.

"If you respect that vow, you say 'til death do us part,'" he said. "This is a kind of death."

Robertson, who is chairman of the Christian Broadcasting Network, founder of the Christian Coalition of America and a former Republican presidential candidate, said that he wouldn’t "put a guilt trip" on someone who decided to divorce their spouse because of the neurological disorder. However he added, as a sort of disclaimer, that viewers should "get some ethicist besides me to give you the answer".

My personal opinion is that this is wrong on many levels. Would we divorce a spouse who had cancer or had suffered a stroke? Would we split if our partner had sustained brain damage in a car accident? I hope most of us would answer with an emphatic NO.

I understand living with a partner who has dementia can be stressful and upsetting. The disease is an irreversible, progressive disease that gradually destroys memory and thinking skills, and, in the latter stages, prevents sufferers from carrying out the simplest of tasks.

But rather than getting shot of our afflicted partners, surely it would be better to ask for help and stick by our loved ones. The Alzheimer's Society offers expert help including day care and home care services and support for carers. And, as Christians, we should have a network of people we can call on for prayer and practical help. 

So what does the Bible say about this? 

  1. Marriage is a lifelong commitment (Matthew 19:6)
  2. God understands people will divorce, but makes it clear that it is not his will  (Malachi 2:16)
  3. Jesus makes his views on divorce and remarriage (or an affair) very clear: “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9). Therefore, if the viewer’s ‘friend’ is cheating, it is the wife who is entitled to divorce him, not the other way around
I’m not saying we should condemn divorcees (my amazing mother is sadly one) or Robertson, who I know next to nothing about. But I think if most of us search our hearts we would conclude that illness can never justifiably be grounds for divorce.

"The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Galatians 5:22-3). Sickness continually roused Jesus' compassion and it should provoke the same reaction is us.

Here are some of the responses I saw to Robertson's views. Please feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments below:

"Sure - to the religious nuts marriage is sacred - until it is inconvenient. Don't let the gays marry but by all means divorce your spouse when they get sick!"

"So, just when the spouse REALLY needs help, you bow out."

"Any suggestions on how I make my wife get Alzheimer's???" 

"And this is why so many have no respect for religion and those like Pat."

"You can spin it whatever way you want but I find his advice shocking - I am an atheist and I take those vows to my spouse more seriously than Robertson does!"

"Wow.... shame on you Mr Robertson. You have just lost so much credibility by the reply. And it just goes against what is contained in the Bible. Again, shame on you."

Read more from Joy in the upcoming issue of Sorted magazine and in the next edition of its sister magazine, Liberti.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Laughter really is the best medicine

Photo credit: Christopher Dunne (Joy left, Reginald D Hunter right)

I recently watched a clip of Reginald D Hunter on BBC Breakfast and it reminded just how important laughter is. In the clip I saw, the American comic literally reduced presenter Sian Williams to tears.

A clip of his stand-up work offers insight into the Georgian’s 14-year experience of British life. Joking about the British penchant for irony and sarcasm, he says: “Sometimes a British person can insult me and it takes me three weeks to figure it out!”

But Sian's laughing fit actually begins before the clip is shown, when she and co-presenter Bill Turnbull first sit down with him. Impressed by the courteous way the American has introduced himself to Sian, Bill warns Reg against flattering her. “She’ll want it all the time,” he jokes.

“Really,” responds Reg in his suavest tones. “Wow man. Sounds like you know your way around women.” (It seems the comedian may have picked up some of our dry British irony himself.)

Sian collapses into peals of laughter, holding her stomach and wiping tears away – clearly picturing poor Bill as the alluring rake. Her poor co-presenter quickly changes the subject, but the damage is done; Sian’s guffaws can still be clearly heard.

I’ve met Reg myself, and I too was impressed by his offstage persona as well as his onstage presence. After an excellent set, he hung around outside the dingy pub to chat to fans, sign autographs and pose for photos.

As I posed with him, he asked me my name. “Joy,” I said, sheepishly. “I can see how that could be,” he replied instantaneously, smiling broadly and wrapping his leathery arm around my shoulder (his skin wasn’t leathery, he was wearing a leather jacket!). He was extremely patient, charming and witty with all of his fans.

I left feeling that the evening had been a great success, having befriended a dashing celebrity AND giving my abs a good workout (he was very funny). My boyfriend left rolling his eyes at how goony I am around famous people!

 Photo credit: Christopher Dunne (Jon Richardson left, Joy right)

All of the comedians I’ve come into contact with have given off this laid-back, welcoming vibe. Jon Richardson and Lloyd Langford were very sweet and giggly when we met them outside Liverpool’s Unity Theatre and Michael McIntyre was charming during the two seconds I got with him at a book signing. And Sorted favourites Tim Vine, Milton Jones and Andy Kind were all on top form when I had the privilege of interviewing them for the magazine.

Being around funny people certainly lifts the mood. According to the experts, laughter is a powerful antidote to stress, pain and disagreement. Humour can make take your mind off your problems as well as helping to keep you grounded, focused and alert. The Bible also makes the connection between good humour and health. Proverbs 17:22 says: “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.”

Photo credit: Christopher Dunne (Lloyd Langford left, Joy right) 

Read more from your favourite comedians in the upcoming edition of Sorted magazine. In the meantime, here are some great gags and groaners from this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival to get you in the mood. 

Five of the best:

  1. Nick Helm: I needed a password eight characters long so I picked Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
  2. Tim Vine: Crime in multi-storey car parks. That is wrong on so many different levels.
  3. Hannibal Buress: People say, ‘I'm taking it one day at a time’. You know what? So is everybody. That's how time works.
  4. Tim Key: Drive Thru McDonalds was more expensive than I thought ... once you've hired the car ...
  5. Matt Kirshen: I was playing chess with my friend and he said, 'Let's make this interesting'. So we stopped playing chess.

Five of the worst:

  1. Tim Vine: Uncle Ben has died. No more Mr Rice Guy.
  2. Vladimir McTavish: The Lockerbie bomber put Lockerbie on the map. Well he nearly took it off it too.
  3. Josh Howie: I've got nothing against the Chinese. Don't get me Wong.
  4. Card Ninja: I went to see this show and the guy said ‘Hey kid do you like magic?’ And I said ‘Yeah!’ So he asked if I wanted to see a trick and I said ‘Yeah!’ So he said ‘think of a number, times it by two and if it’s odd ...’ Oh no, he's a MATHmagician!  
  5. Tom Webb: Due to the economy, profiteroles will now be called deficiteroles.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Am I offending you?

Picture credit: Acapeloahddub/Wikipedia

We live in a society in which freedom of speech is expected and respected… 

Or do we? 

How many of us have been told “You can’t say that!” by people who have different beliefs or values? And how often have we wanted to stop the mouths of those who say things that offend our own sensibilities?

There has recently been tension between members of the English Defence League (EDL) and groups protesting against what the far-right organisation stands for. Police have stopped the EDL from marching, but they cannot stop them from getting together and making their views clear. This has led to clashes with protesters who feel the EDL’s anti-Islamic views should not be indulged.

But however wrong the EDL’s ethos is, freedom of speech laws cannot be applied only to people whose views we agree with. If that was the case, we would end up being controlled by the state like China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Libya. Is that really what we want? 

Belief grief 
To my mind, there is no more divisive issue than ‘religion’. I put this in inverted commas because I happen to think that a lot of ‘religious’ disagreements are, in fact, political ones.

There’s the ongoing tension between Catholics and Protestants in the north of Ireland, the disharmony between Israel and Lebanon (among others) and the violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Pakistan.

So-called Christians have also courted controversy. Take the Koran-burning pastor in the US whose actions shocked people of all faiths around the world. Then there’s the outrageous Westboro Baptist Church, as shown on Louis Theroux’s The Most Hated Family in America documentary. Members of this ‘church’ spoke openly about their hatred of Muslims, Jews, homosexuals, soldiers, the Americans, the Chinese and more or less anyone else that doesn’t belong to their cult. 

Controversial cartoons 
You probably remember the Danish cartoon depictions of Mohammed in 2006, which led to outbreaks of violence in many regions. Well, a similar campaign recently caused offence in the UK (although, true to form, the English reaction was extremely reserved).

I’m referring to a banned mobile phone advert featuring a winking image of Jesus who gives the thumbs up to one of the company’s “miraculous” deals. The advert was banned because of written complaints from Christians who felt the advert was “disrespectful” to the Christian faith.

Now I’m not saying I disagree with these complaints – I haven’t seen the advert and I reject anything that belittles the amazing things Jesus has done. But if we, as Christians, want to be able to tell people what we believe, don’t we have to accept that other people might say or do things that may offend us?

The advert makers claim they were trying to portray a “lighthearted, positive and contemporary image of Christianity”. Surely that is what we are trying to do. So shouldn’t we be concentrating our efforts on doing this rather than focusing on shutting other people up? 

Picking our battles 
Imagine if spent all of our time trying to ban people from denying the existence of God. The Richard Dawkinses of this world would have a field day! It would be like bailing water out of a sinking boat with a teaspoon.

In my opinion, we need to respect that other people – even other Christians – will have different views from us. Rather than shutting ourselves away from other belief (or unbelief) groups, we should engage with people, be passionate about what we believe and refuse to become offended by triviality.

I’m not saying we should be doormats or that we should accept racism and hatred; Jesus certainly didn’t mince his words when he encountered people with warped views.

But he caused outrage during his time on earth by accepting and showing compassion to ‘sinners’ rather than condemning them, and upsetting the social order by expressing his unconditional love for ALL people (yes, even Westboro and the EDL).

So let’s follow his example.

Feel free to leave comments! You can read more from Joy in the upcoming issue of Sorted magazine.

"It is to one’s glory to overlook an offense" (Proverbs 19:11).

Friday, 2 September 2011

Wake up and stay awake!

Left: Dr Sayer (Robin Williams), Right: Leonard Lowe (Robert DeNiro)

I’ve been watching a lot of films lately, mainly chick flicks if you must know. But one film in particular touched my heart this week, despite the fact it was made 21 years ago. 

Awakenings is about a neurologist who finds himself working with catatonic patients. They don’t speak, they don’t look at you; they are, to the untrained eye, the ‘living dead’.

Everyone has given up on them, but this neurologist (played by Robin Williams) is convinced there is life and feeling beneath those glazed eyes and frozen limbs. He sets about looking for a way to bring these patients ‘back to life’.

Stumbling upon a drug used to treat sufferers of Parkinson’s Disease, the ever-hopeful doctor administers some of the medicine to one of his patients, Leonard Lowe (portrayed powerfully by Robert DeNiro).

All of a sudden, Leonard regains the use of his limbs, his voice, his eyes. He can read again, listen to music, and even fall in love.

Dr Sayer then treats the other patients. The effect is the same and it warmed my heart to see their previously expressionless faces become animated.

The story doesn’t end there, and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but I wanted to share the three things it taught me:
  1. Don’t give up on people. However difficult you find your boss, your sister, or the local traffic warden (boo, hiss!), there is a person with feelings in there. They may not respond to you in the way you’d like, but we should persevere with people because we never know when a breakthrough might happen.
  2. Seize life! Leonard gives a rousing speech after he regains the use of his body. “We’ve got to remind them how good it is… People have forgotten what life is all about; they’ve forgotten what it is to be alive. They need to be reminded, they need to be reminded about what they have and what they can lose. What I feel is the joy of life, the gift of life, the freedom of life, the wonderment of life!” Imagine if we all lived like this every day. When the patients ‘wake up’, they are overwhelmed by the feeling of air on their faces, of the warmth of light, of the delight of music. They are a stark reminder that life is for living! 
  3. Have no regrets. Let’s not be like the patients who spend 10, 20, 50 years as statues and then wake up wishing they could have their time again. It’s so sad when people look back at the gifts they wasted, the careers they could have had, the love they never experienced. Dr Sayer says of Leonard that: “He's lived for 30 years in abjection and defeat”. Leonard had no choice in the matter – what’s our excuse?
As far as I’m concerned, the best way to live a fulfilled life is to live it hand in hand with our creator, who sees our potential in even when the world has given up on us. Jesus came to earth so we could “have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). So what are we waiting for?!

Read more from Joy in the next issue of Sorted magazine.