Friday, April 30, 2010

Part-Time Work

Some folks have asked what I have been getting up to recently! The answer is I've been doing some part-time work for a new Perthshire based company - doing a little research, writing, and starting to do some publicity work for them too. A local inventor designed the SmartTRASHER - a domestic waste compactor and separator, the size of a dishwasher but capable of storing a weeks recycling for the average family.

By making recycling easier, and bringing it within the required standards of the modern stylish kitchen, the SmartTRASHER promises to make a significant contribution to meeting local authorities Zero-waste targets. Recycling centres, have also been enthusiastic about the potential of this technology because not only does it compact waste on site (this can result in more efficient use of waste lorries), but unlike standard compaction units, it does not crush mixed waste together - which increases the costs, lowers the efficiency and reduces the effectiveness of recycling centres. Initial reviews have suggested that delivering significant benefits for the home and the recycling industry mean that the device will make a valuable contribution. In areas where local councils are contemplating separate roadside collections for all types of recyleable waste - and each home will need multiple bins; some form of domestic waste management system will be not just desirable but essential.

The product itself has been designed locally, built and tested in Edinburgh and the first one has been driven down to London ready for a product launch next week at Grand Designs Live at the Excel.

A simple demo of what the SmartTRASHER does, is now online at http://smarttrasher.com, and news of developments will soon be appearing on other places on the web too. I'm only working part-time on this, because I'm juggling lots of commitments with the family, and church, and need to be flexible around them. I'm doing three-months initially and then we'll see where things go after that. Happily, I'm able to work flexibly from home too which means that if the kids were sent home from school ill (or the teachers do actually strike!) I will at least be in the place for them. It's early days with this - it'll be interesting to help launch it and see where it leads, how successful it is and what contribution to it I could make.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Book Notes: Captured by a Better Vision: Living Porn Free by Tim Chester

Why every Christian man should read this book.

Surveys of Christians and pornography all come to the same conclusion - about a third of people surveyed are addicts or regular accessers of porn. Amongst younger people the figures are even higher, for men higher than for women, and for those in church leadership no different than amongst congregations. That means that you have almost certainly either seen porn, currently use it - or will be exposed to it in the near future. Furthermore you probably won't even have to go looking for it - some unscrupulous spammer might just send it you anyway. Pornography has saturated our culture in the last generation, the shame of asking for 'top-shelf' publications has been replaced with what one Psychologist called the three 'A's: Anonymity, Affordability & Accessibility.

Tim Chester's book is good news for anyone who needs to be freed from the addictive grip of pornography. Likewise it is good news for anyone not addicted to it - but who knows that they need to have all their appetites tamed, so that when the inevitable temptation comes, they are in a position to defend their integrity, and make the active choice to honour God, not indulge their lusts.

Part One investigates the effects of porn, physically, psychologically, in family relationships and marriage, as well as exposing some of the abuse and misery that goes on behind the scenes in the porn industry - to which consumers contribute. Dryly, Chester notes that given the high percentage of Christians who use porn, and the high percentage of them who back the "Stop the Traffik" campaign against people-trafficking; some of the same people are both opposing and funding the same nefarious trade. Going beyond what might be strictly considered to be porn today (but might have been so classified in previous generations) he also speaks about the devastating effect on the young of the bombardment of over-sexualised imagery in everyday life. Chester's "12 Reasons to avoid porn" is a sad, but important chapter. It concludes with this paragraph:

















So far - much of what is written there could form the basis of any standard self-help book. This book however goes way-beyond that, and seeks rather to develop a Christian response to porn; specifically pointing out the ways that the gospel both makes porn abhorrent - and motivates and empowers the believer to part with it. Chester outlines the way in which use of porn is in theological terms both idolatrous and unbelieving. He writes from a position of human responsibility for our actions - hence he mocks any excuse that tries to blame a lower-libido'd spouse, or any claim that it is outwith the user's control, or any pretence that 'my willy made me do it'! If learning to despise the porn itself, (rather than just the shame associated with it) is a starting point - taking responsibility is a next step.

The book then very persuasively demonstrates that the deep-seated spiritual and psychological needs which are the drivers which attract people to porn - are actually needs which are met by God when we walk with Him. As such, anything which stands in God's place is an idol - to be rejected. However, porn can only disappoint, as it offers the user a twisted form of self-worship, but has been proven again and again to actually deliver self-loathing. The grace of God is then massively significant, because it is in responding to the gospel of Christ that any sinner (that's all of us in one way or another) can know the forgiveness, cleansing, healing and empowering presence of God - and most significantly His love and approval. The good news is that we can feast on Him - which makes sin redundant.

Only after laying down such important spiritual principles does Chester go on to explore the practicalities of computer Internet filters, accountability structures and the like. These, have their place in allowing the determined person, motivated by the gospel, to 'crucify the flesh' and turn good intentions into practical purity. He also explores something of the Biblical concept of positive sexuality, as in the Song of Songs. The beauty, power, gentleness, mutuality, poetry and delight of sex depicted here is a view of sex that many porn users have had robbed from them by the exploitation, selfishness or violence of pornography. In so doing, he makes a useful contribution to the promotion of a Christian view of marriage, and also strikes a blow against the all-pervasive sexual objectification of women, in our society. This book teaches men who have been reared on a diet of advertising which uses the female form as a marketing tool - to instead honour women as God intends.

Sometimes the more important something is - the more power it has both for good and for harm. The power of sexual attraction is just such a powerful force - yet each of us has the responsibility to use this power positively in service to God. "Captured by a Better Vision" I think is an ideal place to begin to explore what for Christian men this means in today's world, whether you have had dealings with porn or not. As I stated earlier on, the statistics are bewildering. It means that there it is almost certain that that there are some readers of this blog who are under the power of this sin - who need to come into the freedom that Christ both offers and demands. The rest of you will face temptation of this nature very soon, and need to be prepared for that.

Now, going into your local Christian bookshop and saying to the old-dear behind the counter, "Excuse me, do you have Tim Chester's book about Pornography?" will elicit the most strange looks and awkward exchange (she fumbles with the till and receipts, trying to avoid eye-contact, while trying not to make it too obvious that none is being made!). So I wouldn't blame you if you didn't want to have such an encounter, but Christian men - you should read this book. You can get it online, here, here or here.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Book Notes: "Raised with Christ" by Adrian Warnock

Adrian Warnock is best known as the writer of the outspoken blog, adrianwarnock.com, which at one time had a very lively comments section, is very widely read, and has been credited with bringing many of the voices of the so-called 'young, restless and reformed' movement to a UK readership, and blending it with the 'charismatic' practices of his New Frontiers churchmanship.

In this his first book Warnock seeks to rivet the readers attention on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The cross of Christ and his death has been the traditional emphasis of the western church, both in positive remembrance, and over the last few years, deeply-felt theological wrangles over its meaning to which Warnock has been no stranger. In this book though he seeks to move our attention onto the positive Christian declaration that Christ who died, rose again and now reigns. He demonstrates that while the resurrection was absolutely central to the life, witness and proclamation of the first Christians - it is often merely assumed by today's church. The central prominence of this theme in the New Testament is simply not reflected in contemporary preaching, praying, publishing, faith, hope or Christian practice! He has a good point and he makes it well.

Secondly, and drawing on the work of scholars like N.T. Wright, he coherently marshals some of the apologetic arguments that insist that it is historically sound to argue for the historicity of the resurrection - and that this was not in the form of an apparition, but of genuine bodily resurrection. This again is pretty well put together, defining the heart of Christian belief, and the reasons for holding it - with clarity and without unnecessary theological terminology.

Thirdly Warnock looks at the bigger picture of the biblical view of post-mortem resurrection, how the doctrine emerged during the Old Testament period, and existed at the time of Christ - where the matter was much disputed between Pharisees and Saducees. This section was less strong, in being a little selective in the texts covered, presenting the Old Testament in more systematic terms than it is written.

Warnock's fourth emphasis though is probably the most helpful part of the book -in that he shows that the resurrection of Christ is part of the gospel, often left unproclaimed - even in presentation in visitor-services and the like, aimed at explaining the core of the faith to interested people. The NT, Warnock points out says that "Christ was raised for our justification". Quoting Calvin who said, "For how could he by dying have freed us from death, if he had yielded to its power?" Warnock points out that without the life-giving power of the risen Christ, his death alone could have made us 'forgiven corpses'! Extending his theme, he develops the view that Christian conversion is a personal resurrection, which comes from being united with Christ and participating in his resurrection. These two chapters are worth the price of the book alone and will repay careful reading.

The final two sections deal with (i) the Christian life and (ii) the return of Christ. The Christian life section, in which matters such as sanctification, bible-study, prayer and revival are dissected was the weakest in the book however. This was not because of any great errors that are contained within them - more simply that Warnock seems at times to address these subjects without tying them adequately to his main resurrection theme. Ironically he seems occasionally in this section to somewhat merely assume the resurrection! While each of his topics is opened up with his customary clarity and accuracy, without clearly anchoring them in his resurrection theme, they appear to be a list of personal spiritual priorities rather than the inescapable and inevitable implications of the resurrection. Developing Lloyd-Jones' pneumatology might be a very worthwhile thing to do - but might be better done in a book on the work of the Spirit, or a commentary on Ephesians. The opposite of this weakness is the method employed by NT Wright whose "Surprised by Hope" seeks to tie the emphases of the Christian life very specifically to his understanding of Christ's resurrection, especially its physicality.

Finally Warnock ends on a high note. Expounding the last New Testament saying of the risen Christ he looks at the Great Commission and the church's mission to tell the whole world about him. Then he looks at the great hope of Christian salvation which is not a disembodied spirit-only (float about on a cloud!) but of complete personal and physical resurrection like Christ's. Finally he concludes with a brief chapter on the future hope of the resurrection of the whole cosmos, the judgement of God, and the renewal of all things.

This year "Raised with Christ" was my Easter reading - and its a thought-provoking and stimulating read which has had a significant effect in re-balancing my understanding of the gospel towards the New Testament pattern. His understanding of the gospel in the light of the death and resurrection of Christ is great. The book is written in deceptively simple language, grappling as it is with some very serious things. A British author consistently using American spellings does grate after a while, but I tried not to let this annoy me too much! In this review I have noted that the book is not of uniform quality throughout, some chapters sparkling - while material selection in other parts seemed a little arbitrary - and I do think that some of the high-profile rave reviews over-state their case somewhat. Nevertheless this has been a really useful Easter read, and at raisedwithchrist.net, there is the promise of study-materials to follow which might make it a basis for a small-group Bible-study next year.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Tag-a-long Fun

I didn't think we'd manage a 'family bike ride' this year! While the boys are safely up on two wheels and can manage ten miles or so of peddling without (too much) complaining, our four year old daughter is far from being able to manage that. For her - a half an hour toddle around the local park with stabilisers intact is as much as she could manage by herself. This of course frustrated the boys no end - being held back by their "silly, little" sister (sic). Some neighbours recommended the tag-a-long to us - which they use to overcome a similar scenario in their household. It clamps simply and easily onto the back of the parents' bike via a quick-release bolt - onto a bracket which remains permanently on the seat-post.

In theory the 4-year-old on the back has a set of pedals with which to contribute to the effort required in dragging all the extra weight up hills and into wind! In practice her effort was intermittent (expressed charitably!) and on our return she is the only one who doesn't look slightly weary!

In Perth we are fortunate to be situated right on one of SUSTRANS national cycle routes which enables us to get right through the town, along by the river and into some lovely countryside. Today we cycled along the banks of the Tay, through the North Inch, round the back of Muirton and up to the confluence of the Almond and Tay rivers. Here the cycle-path follows the delightful path of the Almond out of the town and along to the village of Almondbank. A small hill separates this village from Pitcairngreen, a pleasant place to stop for a drink, some crisps and ice-cream in the afternoon sun before turning to cycle home by the same route.

Film Notes: The Hurt Locker


When "Saving Private Ryan" was released it was heralded as a breakthrough in the treatment of war in movies. It's opening sequence was terrifying, gripping, distressing and (apparently) unnervingly realistic in its depictions not just of the wounds of war, but also of the confusion of battle.

'Hurt Locker' tells the story of three soldiers in a bomb disposal team in occupied Baghdad after the end of formal hostilities, in the centre of the insurgency. In constant danger from bombs, snipers, suicide attacks, far from home and in great heat - the three main characters seek to survive. Sgt William James (Jeremy Renner), the main bomb disposal expert is accompanied throughout by two specialists, Sgt JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), and Sgt Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) whose job is to keep him safe as he disarms devices. Much of the plot concerns James' maverick and dangerous approach to the task, bravery to the point of foolishness, unquestioned skill and lack of judgement.

The Hurt Locker is a very different film from 'Ryan' - yet has been lauded in similar terms, as achieving a new depth in Hollywood's treatment of armed conflict. This film is well worthy of its Oscar's for direction, editing, sound, script, and so forth - part of its power is that there are no lousy errors in these departments to distract, but the whole presentation unrelentingly seizes the imagination for the entire 126 minutes. But it is not in these things that the contrast to Ryan is most apparent, neither is it in the fact that Ryan takes place in the middle of an enormous set-piece battle; whereas Hurt Locker exists within the excruciating tension of hostile occupation and guerrilla warfare.

The key difference rather, is in fact that all the characters in 'Ryan' sanely long for home, and dream of returning to their girl back home in Pennsylvania, Alabama, or Tennessee. In a sinister, and disturbing development in this film it becomes apparent that Sgt. James, isn't merely naively gung-ho, but is deeply committed to, and indeed addicted to, the pursuit of war. If 'Ryan' is chilling in its treatment of the threat from without, the horror of war and the losses sustained; The Hurt Locker is chilling in its dealing with the threat from within - that the very act of war might actually intoxicate the human soul, and so overwhelm a personality that nothing else provides it adequate meaning - especially not the comforts of civilian domesticity.

If this is a serious message which writer Mark Boal wanted to relay (basing his writing on his time spent as a reporter 'embedded' amongst US troops in the Iraq war), then Kathryn Bigelow's film delivers it with a mighty punch. The film is a (15) certificate, reflecting some strong language and distressing scenes, which no doubt were part of the real experience that Boal wished to capture. Utterly compelling.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

At Montrose


While Endlessly Restless had visited Peterhead and was posting delightful postcard pictures of colourful fishing boats (on a sunny day with a decent camera), we were walking along the coast at Montrose. Here in dull light and a through a dodgy camera we saw a different aspect of Scotland's surviving maritime industry.

While Peterhead's traditional fishing boats ooze charm, and invoke all kinds of nostalgia, Montrose's heavy industrial traffic was all about brute strength, oil and heavy seas.







The narrow shipping lane that connects the open water to the natural harbour, is itself the gateway to the Montrose basin. Here a powerful tug, called the Netherland Tide, negotiates the channel after a brief meeting with the harbour pilot who sailed out to meet it a mile or so off-shore. The kids were fascinated with this - and tried (and failed) to race the ship from the lighthouse back to the harbour, while hailstones pelted them! The point of the day had been that they had asked to sample genuine Arbroath Smokies (I wonder if they have been told about them at school?), and so we went initially to Arbroath harbour where the genuine articles can be as much smelled as tasted! Our next planned stop at Lunan Bay was interrupted by rain - but they seemed delighted with these unexpected views of ships instead.


My camera takes nice pictures in good light but, as soon as perfect sunshine disappears is only capable of annoyingly grainy shots. An upgrade required, one day!

Travelling Home

The end of a great holiday in N.Ireland

Last Glimpse

The final slither of the sun, dips below distant Donegal - and is gone.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Carrick-a-Rede

Ireland's northern coast is a wild and spectacular collision of land and sea, where bands of harder rock still stick defiant arms out into the water while softer parts have been carved into graceful coves and beaches. This is not a tranquil meeting of earth and water in salt marshes and reed beds, but rather a brutal, and often stunningly beautiful front in a timeless war of attrition.

The surrounding seas may sometimes be hostile, but they have been fruitful and plentiful - supplying countless generations of Ulster folk with a livelihood and food-source. The difficulty in this environment was landing the catch - a seemingly impossible task, given the tangles of shattered and splintered rock descending near-vertical slopes to the waves beneath. Many years ago ingenious fishermen devised a system in which a winch could be placed on a low-cliff above a more peaceful reach, the fish being hoisted up onto a small island promontory. That island though was separated from the mainland by a precipitous gorge, which they spanned with a rope bridge.

The old rope-bridge was apparently a spindly, dangerous affair. My in-laws recall going across it when it was quite slack, dipping deeply in the middle, and having very little rope-work on its sides to prevent a small slip resulting in a dramatic demise. Now in the care of the National Trust, and with the bridge renewed, it makes a great day out.

It's still a big enough drop to cause a sharp intake of breath if you allow yourself a brief look down!

Spiderman

Norris - aka Spiderman, assaults a blade of rock at Portstewart, N. Ireland.

Memory Lane, Articlave

Mrs H. & I took a few minutes (without children in tow!) to visit this place last week. It's the premises of First Dunboe Presbyterian Church, in Articlave, Northern Ireland. For my wife initially (and subsequently for me) this is a place loaded with memories and significance.

When I visit my hometown after a long absence, the experience can be quite overwhelming, as even walking down the road can trigger a stream of long-buried memories to bombard the mind. I am sure that the intensity of that mental assault is probably far stronger for the returning absentee, than for those who have remained close to home their whole lives who become accustomed to the markers of the past inhabiting their present.

For my wife, this was the place she was brought as a child, for us both this was the place we got married in 1996, making it inextricably part of my history too. In the graveyard around the building, we traced several generations of her family, names we had heard at funerals, stretching back across the tiers of the family tree, spellings sometimes changing en route. The graveyard is also full of memorials to dozens of people that my wife has known over the years - the reminder of whom was powerful and affecting. So too, were the names of people written there who we have both known, both of family and friends; those who died young and those who lived long.

Portstewart Sunset

Marooned?

I have various friends marooned in cities and airports, in various places around Europe. We spent seven hours stuck at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport in November after our flight had been cancelled, which was bad enough. Some of my friends have been in such places now for days on end - while volcanic ash still billows out of Iceland, and gently settles over Northern Europe.

The picture is of the inside of one of Paris CDGs elegant terminal buildings - a quick snap taken on my phone.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Falls of Clyde Montage

At New Lanark

After a day sitting in our rain-lashed house yesterday, Boris, Norris, Doris & I took advantage of a decent day's weather to visit New Lanark today. The New Lanark Mill village is a place I have read about and which I have heard mentioned in many history, sociology, economics and politics classes over the years. I hadn't realised that it is now one of only five designated 'World Heritage Sites' in Scotland. Although not established initially by him, New Lanark will always be linked with the name Robert Owen, who bought out his partners in order to model the village as a new socialist Utopia (well, one in which child labour, over-crowding, long working hours, and having to listen to long speeches by Robert Owen, was the norm). Having said that, in comparison with the standard working and living conditions in the cities springing up at the time, like nearby Glasgow, or even Dundee - New Lanark was indeed utopian.
The exhibition itself is pretty well done, with the buildings well preserved, some good exhibits, interesting information panels and an expensively made ride through the mills history told through the eyes of a ghost of a girl who lived in the village in its heyday and who still hangs about to inform visitors. There's plenty of good hands-on history here to engage the children, from discussions of social conditions, to the demise of British manufacturing to the beginnings of socialism to the working of waterwheels.
At the end of it all there is also the fabulous walk alongside the River Clyde, as its waters froth and boil through the gorge and over the much-photographed Falls of Clyde.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Marriage Course Reflections

With a sense of, "we've made it..." we completed another marriage course in Perth last night. It's the first course we have hosted using the updated marriage course materials - which underwent a complete re-vamp last year. The basic format has remained the same, the seven sessions remain as on the original course (foundations. communication, conflict resolution, forgiveness, wider family, good sex, and love in action). Again as on the original course, the DVD, presented by Nicky and Sila Lee, has got several places on each evening, which contain pauses for couples to talk privately using the questions in their manuals.

As on the original course, it is very, very practically orientated, and (quite deliberately I think) wears the research behind it very lightly. What I mean is that while the Lees' have obviously read widely on subjects like social change, and the nature of contemporary marriage - they don't weigh their presentation down with endless footnotes (many more of which are cited on their leaders training days). Likewise, theologically the Christian and biblical assumptions which inform the course are not in-yer-face; it's certainly not a Bible-study course, by any means - and the talks are not a series of bible-quotations; neither is it suitable only for Christians. Nevertheless, the manual accompanying the talks reveals a lot about the biblical inspiration for the subjects covered, such as 'the power of forgiveness'.

The biggest change in the course (apart from the dropping of almost certainly fictitious but very funny Mr Gorsky story!) is that the presentation has been made a lot slicker than on the first edition. Not only does the dialogue rotate much more frequently between the two presenters, but they also cut a lot more often to filmed clips of couples interviewed about the evening's topic. The down side of this is that the more magazine format is so busy that the main points might not stand out so clearly, because it is all so engaging! The plus side is that the whole thing is of a good contemporary standard of production and presentation. From the perspective of hosts running it, we found that the timetable of the new material was much more demanding than on the original course. As there are more breaks for discussion and therefore shorter talks - the 'window of opportunity' for nipping to the kitchen to prepare teas, coffees and deserts to serve at the evenings 3o-minute 'long exercise', was on some occasions just too too tight to meet (and on the night our kettle packed up - totally impossible!). This is especially the case when on a full course we use the kitchen for a couples' discussions - so its completely shut except when we come back together to watch a DVD segment.

Mrs H. and I had hoped to do the course again ourselves this time, so refresh our marriage and to really get to grips with the new materials. I think on the nights we were just too occupied with the challenge of running the course to really be able to do so properly - and despite some great discussions in the breaks from the DVD we didn't manage to compete all the homework. So - we're planning to do some reviewing over the next few weeks.

Next Thursday I will enjoy the day more - and the evening less! I will enjoy the day more, as I won't be cleaning, tidying, shopping peeling spuds, checking DVDs, chopping wood, lighting fires, or serially filling dishwashers! Instead I will be going out for lunch with my wife! I will enjoy the evening less though, because Marriage Course evenings are great fun - especially towards the end of a course when the guests have got to know each other bit, and the banter around the meal table is increasingly entertaining. There's always a buzz in the air on a Marriage Course night - and I'll miss all the people who've been here over the last seven weeks. Falling asleep on the sofa (!) maybe more relaxing, but it's hardly as rewarding. The next discussion well need to have, is if and when to advertise it and offer the course again.