Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Putting hallelujah in a box

So its a time of year for giving and thinking of others before yourself. Yeah, right. We are just as selfish as we are the rest of the year and when it comes down to it, if we don't have things the way we want it, we can get a little miffed, whether it's a preference for cranberry sauce over jelly or sitting in another room alone just to watch the Christmas tv we want to watch.

As RuthE has rightly pointed out, populist mass marketed commercialism seems to be dominating the Christmas music charts even more than usual this year, leaving some of us unimpressed at the stranglehold of commercialism and the rest rushing out (or logging on) to buy the latest X-Factor-mas No. 1. We all know who is having it their own way there.

However, on the theme of personal preference, it is interesting to note that there are at least 3 versions of the classic song "hallelujah" in the charts this week, however. Some are asking, "
Whose hallelujah is it anyway?". It seems that even with an hallelujah, everyone has their own favourite and is keen to say which one really is the best.

Perhaps with all the dynamics of that, is it stretching it too much to ask, does this reflect our desire to put life Christmas, and even hallelujah in whichever box suits us? At this of all times, the real hallelujah is owed to the One who gave up everything and humbled Himself to become one of us, whilst losing none of his Divinity. That is how much He loves the selfish people who often cannot see beyond their own noses. How can we fail to respond to that grace, despite, or even because of our flawed self-centred nature.

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even thoughIt all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but
L. Cohen

It seems approprite to give the last word to the angels, who got it about spot on:
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people on whom his favour rests" (Luke 2:13&14)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Could you pass the 11+ ?

Technically, I never did. And yet I passed it with the highest grade twice. The "problem" was that I was a year younger than most of my classmates, and in their wisdom, the BELB "back in them days" decided that meant I had to sit the test again on a special day, even though I had passed it the first time. To this day I still don't understand why nor why I was still not allowed to officially pass. Thankfully rich parents got me though the first year of "big school" until I passed yet another hurdle at the end of first year and was allowed to officially count. I'm told that these days pupils who are younger than their peers are given the opposite treatement...

Anyway, for those, and many other reasons, I am not sad to see the 11+ go. I believe 11 is a dreadful age to test children and, if they must be tested, 14 is a much more realistic age. It has never been an accurate or satisfactory system, but the problem is that it is so engrained that it has proved almost impossible to replace. Who knows what lies ahead for kids, but you might want to have a go at this fun 11+ test which the Beeb put up for us. That's if you can do it withouth your palms getting all sweaty and your breathing getting all panicy...

You'll be glad to know that I passed with 13 out of 15. Really. I actually ran out of time and guessed (wrongly) the last 2. Very revealing of both my stupidity and how hard these things were!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

When Bagpuss goes to sleep...

The sad death of Oliver Postgate was announced today. Need I say more than The Clangers, Bagpuss, Noggin the Nog (if you know that one, you are showing your age) and Ivor the Engine. I wonder what memories you have of these? I did love Ivor the Engine and his friend the dragon who lived in the firebox. I definitely loved the Clangers, even though they made very little sense, (but a little more than some kids tv these days!).

I have to say it caused me to feel a little sad that part of my childhood had gone with him. But even though little kids grow up, I guess part of us never does, (without any mention of pirates with hooks and crocodiles swallowing ticking clocks!) One girl that did grow up was Emily, you know, the one who loved the saggy old cloth cat, even though he was "a bit loose at the seams". I was amused to discover that Emily Firmin (below) is only a couple of years older than me - not sure that makes me feel older or not, but some things don't stand still! Whether or not we have kids to pass these things on to (or to tell us how old and out of touch we are), these kinds of memories are special because they are part of who we are; not so much the programmes themselves, but the situations in which and people with whom we watched them. So thank you Oliver for happy memories. RIP.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Virginal Ulster game for Mrs Sharky

My dear wife showed all her character and courage tonight and attended her first proper game of rugby, which I am glad to say was a very pleasing win by Ulster over the Scalets. I am not sure how long it will take the various extremities of our bodies to recover from standing on the baltic terraces, but it was worth it. To her credit, Mrs Sharky did enjoy the experience and we appreciated a good display from the Ulstermen, not least a fine try from Danielli which warmed our spirits, if not our toes. How long before we brave another game I wonder...?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Duke slays St George

Still a little stiff and tired with ringing ears from last night, I must experess my huge enjoyment of another Duke Special extravaganza at St. George's Market last night. The event was somewhat unusual, with a big supporting lineup introduced by local guy Paul Currie who led us through an eclecitic mix of harp music, bluegrass, comedy and rock music. The list included Paul Pilot, who was in Duke's band later on, Tim Minchin, (who appears to have been separated at birth from Duke), Cahier No. 9, The Lowly Knights (who I am sure were very good but we couldn't hear their accoustic set in the middle of the crowd!) bizzarre but entertaining New Yorker, Jason Trachtenburg

Duke's set began with 3 new ones, as he worked his way down the track list of the new CD; the striking "Mockingbird Wish Me Luck" kicked things off followed by the instant hit "Sweet Sweet Kisses" and "Those Proverbs We Made in the Winter Must End". He went on to intersperse the new with the familiar for almost 2 hours of pure genius.
If anyone had concerns that the new material would not be up to the high standard Duke Special has set, they should be properly dispelled by last night's performace. Although the crowd took a while to get into some of the quieter ones, they clicked immediately with the fun "Flesh & Blood Dance", the grower, "Let Me Go" and, of course, "Diggin' an Early Grave". All the favourites were on the set list and the band were just superb; where else can you get the unique and hillarious talents of Chip Bailey, the superb musicianship of Ben Castles, backed with great quality on drums, base, guitar (Paul Pilot) and a Hammond Organ player who wore face bandages the whole way through!?!

Duke made the full use of the venue (literally, being in the crowd 3 times) and the set (including standing on top of his piano, rather precariously!) but mostly in how he fed off the electric atmopshere, as he uniquely does. He was clearly loving the experience and we loved him back, as he skillfully controlled the pace and atmosphere the whole way through and kept us longing for more right through the night, even after being on our feet almost 5 hours.

The encore, a perfect end to the evening, included a couple of fantastic cover versions, starting with Van Morrisons "Orangefield" sung a cappella and very movingly. We were treated to a unique version of "Freewheel" with Duke, his piano and a slide guitar accompanyment, which was also very powerful. Tim Minchin joined the band for the finale of "Our Love Goes Deeper that This" which left the guest singer seeming in total shock at the reaction of the audience who were, by this time, firmly in the palm of the Dukes hand.
The other cover was a powerful version of the old Specials song, "Ghosttown". The irony of this won't be lost on anyone; this song used to be an accurate description of Belfast but, as Duke said, not any more, and the emergence of St. Georges Market as a wonderful gig venue is testimony to how the city has changed and come alive. The ghosts of St Georges will have been proud that one of this city's finest musicians has taken yet another Special step forward to proving himself to be one of the best performers anywhere around.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The fine line between being salt and being ridiculous

Interesting to hear of West Sussex RC Cleric, Christopher Jamison, who has come out strongly against the Disney corporation. He accuses them of "exploiting spirituality" to sell its products and of turning Disneyland into a modern day pilgrimage site. Pointing out the tendency for Disney to give children morals, he points out their underlying aim to sell a lot of merchandise, thus making lots of money and helping to drive a materialistic culture.

Innevitably, of course, he has come in for a lot of stick over this - see Damian Thompson of the Telegraph for one, although I think his main point is that if we are to be critical of Disney in this way, there are plenty of other equally worthy targets. Many will be less balanced in their criticism of this stance, but it does cause me to ask a question. Where is the line between challenging our culture, especially with a spiritual motivation, and just looking (or indeed being) ridiculous? Of course, at times we need to be prepared to say things that are unpopular and risk ridicule.

Is it so awful that Fr Jamison has suggested true happiness may involve living more simply? Is that not a Biblical message? It is not possible to truely judge what he has said second hand from the press, but it did make me think. I wonder if I was important enough to have my comments ridiculed, would I say anthing worth making fun of?

Friday, November 28, 2008

Youth voice needs heard in an insane world

The current financial climate has caused people, especailly as they approach Christmas, to rethink their values, assess whether they are too materialistic and, as well as tightening their belt, reorder their moral and social priorities.

Ok, I wish that was true; sadly people (and by people I mean you and I) are still materialistic, consumer driven and sinfully selfish. there are degrees however, and it is always the excesses which stand out and leave us in danger of feeling complacent. Could we find a more horriffic example of that than the shocking death of a Walmart worker, tranpled to death by a stampeding crowd of "Black Friday" bargain hunters in Long Island. By the way, lest we be guilty of making him a statistic, the man's name is Jdimytai Damour. For the record, Jdimytai was 6 feet 5 and 270 pounds - not only does that make his death harder to get your head round, but there is a suggestion that his size was the very reason he was there, not because he was trained to deal with crowd, unfortunately for him.

What is the worst aspect to this? Is the most callous thing that some of the shoppers who poured over, and in fact on top of, him as they rushed on their way to scrap for a morsel of bargain?
"I look at these people's faces and I keep thinking one of them could have stepped on him," said one employee. "How could you take a man's life to save $20 on a TV?"

What about the people who even stepped on those trying to give him medical attention? Or is the most sickening thing the people who then objected when asked to stop shopping in the aftermath of the incident?

Or is it worse that there is also a link at that story, and other places on the net, where we can watch the aftermath and despearate attempts to resuscitate this poor man? Does it feed our need to have as much of the gorey detail as possible, one of the more disturbing aspects of our mass media?

Each of us needs to reexamine our attitudes in the light of this. At least there is one young person who is prepared to speak out and show that he is thoughtful and is trying to evaluate it from a more balanced perspective. A young man who goes under the nicname of KeyboardDP took 10 minutes away from his obvious love of music to show how young people are not prepared to allow such scandalous things to happen unchallenged. He has recorded a brief monologue video which, while it will not solve everyone's problems, shows a thoughtful and wise approach that many of his elders could learn from. We need to give young people more opportunites to have their voice heard as they have so much to say that is helpful.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The death of 3 teens in a messed up world

In a week where the news has been dominated by the tragic deaths of 3 very young children in the UK, I have also been thinking also about the sad news regarding the death of 3 teenage girls.

The first is local girl Ciara Park whose life was taken from her in the blink of an eye, but in one of the most horrible ways imaginable within the context of our daily regular lives in this part of the world. Something as normal as Christmas shopping with her father and younger brother on the main shopping street in Belfast turned into a nightmare and has caused almost as much hand wringing and questioning within our community as the death of baby P has in the wider UK media. Let us not ever forget the pain of Ciara's family, nor of the poor man who was driving the bus which killed her, as we question what our community's response should be to this awful tragedy.

The second sad tale is a death which is yet to happen and steeped in pathos and yet is inspirational. Hannah Jones is a brave 13 year old who has convinced child protection officials in Hereford not to force her to have a heart transplant, after treatment for leukaemia earlier in her life caused a heart condition. She has decided herself that the risk of the proceedure is too great and she would perfer to enjoy what time she has left with her family and freinds. Her father is reported as saying, "It is an incredible thing for a young person who has been through such a lot to have the bravery to stand up for her rights. We're so very proud of our little girl." Who could not be inspired by how Hannah has responded to her painful circumstances.

The final story which has caused me shock and sadness this week was also known about before it happened, at least it was in the community in which this shocking act occurred. It is breathtaking in it's brutality to read of Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow a 13 year old girl in Somalia who was stoned to death by a mob of 1000 men. The Belfast Telegraph report on the incident makes gruesome reading, so you may want to avoid it, but it goes on to explain how Aisha was killed because "(her) crime was to be raped and then report it. After being attacked by three men her family went to the Al-Shabab Islamist militia to report the crime. She was detained and accused of adultery. No effort was made to identify or arrest the rapists". It was even worse that, as some did attempt to intervene, one man was shot and wounded and an 8 year old boy was wounded. No words can adequately respond to this outrage - will the international community respond or even be aware of what happened? Will the people who did that get away with it? How come the media has not picked up on this? Yet again I am puzzled at what decides what makes our headlines and what is confined to the background.

As these 3 young people have come into my head very regularly this week, it has caused me to reflect on the messed up nature of the world in which we live. It is hard to find something postive to take from this - 3 families devastated by very different but equally horrible events in a world tainted by sin and distorted from the world which was originally created. 3 incidents which cause us to ask questions about the sinfulness of people, the priorities of our society and even the role of a just and righteous God.

As we remember 3 girls, although they are from different cultures in our world, may we thank God for the teenagers who are in our sphere of influence and be resolute in our efforts to do all we can to support them, value them and help them make their mark on this world. For those of us who love Jesus, may we do all we can to point them to Him and may He provide comfort to those whose pain only He can fully understand.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Postively against destrucitve media images

Youth workers have for a long time understood the complex but undoubted impact of the media on young people's worldview and specifically on their self-image. One interesting study published this week adds new understanding to this area of concern.

The article "Watching your weight? The relations between watching soaps and music television and body dissatisfaction and restrained eating in young girls" in the journal Psychology & Health discusses the results of a study of 245 girls aged as young as 7-9 years. It found that the more these girls watched soaps and music television, the more they were likely to see a thinner ideal body image, (which is in turn associated with higher body dissatisfaction and restrained eating). More than this, the study found a direct association between watching these programmes and restraining their eating.

The study concludes by suggesting implications for parents, urging caution about how much such television children should be allowed to watch due to concerns that it may be negatively influencing them. However, they also looked at the influence that mothers have on their daughters by giving sublte, (and not so subtle), messages about needing to eat less or not getting fat. The study concludes, "Future research is very important to recognise aspects of the media and family that are related to the development of body image disturbance or disturbed eating behaviour and to evolve strategies to protect young girls against this." It would seem like a timely reminder for all of us, parents, youth and childrens workers, and any adult who is concerned about the wellbeing of children and young people, to think long and hard about the messages we give them, and allow to be given to them. It is easy to wring our hands or just shrug our shoulders in a helpless fashion, but surely every one of us can do something not just to help protect them from negative messages but to give them positive messages which will help them to make healthier choices and have healthier outlooks.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Perspective in the "Brave New Obama World" where God rules

I was talking to my friend in the States on Monday and he was telling me that he had already voted as part of an early (but not often) voting system. He also mentioned that at his church the previous day, Philip Yancey, author of various books including "Disappointed With God", had been preaching. In his sermon, Yancey warned anyone who might be devastated at the result of the impending Presidential election that, if they were that perhaps was a sign that they were building their house on the sand (Matthew 7:26). We haven't heard too much about those who were devastated at the eventual result (apart from those who shamelessly and outrageously booed when McCain was making a congratulatory speech about Obama), but a lot about the hope and expectation that people have in the light of Senor Obama's election. It made me think that even those who were jubilant could be doing some dodgy sand building and that, as Christians, we need to have a constant perspective that it is God who is in control of Mr Obama's little land and our little world. It is God who put him there and God to whom he is accountable, so we should pray for him as he takes on this huge task, even with the optimism and hope associated with his election.

One other thought is the encouragement that has come with the news that a major factor in the election was the number of first time and young voters who came out; surveys suggest that over 52% of voters aged under 30 voted, and having a big impact on the eventual result. The Wall Street Journal quote Eric Greenberg on how the Millenial Generation was "flexing their activism"; "The election of Senator Obama was the first step in the Generation We Revolution. The election results fit squarely with their thoughts and sentiments of dissatisfaction and the need for change. Obama is an icon for this. He represented the embodiment of their ethos for hope and optimism. Moreover, this election, for the youth, was their first salvo in flexing their activist muscle and restoring their damaged American Dream". (Update - see this & I'm sure there will be lots more in the weeks to come!)

Dr Sharky approves. We need young people to take seriously their civic responsibilities, but also to enable them to play their part in the church, which is something that is giving some cause for excitement in the Presbyterian Church as they anticipate SPUD, their youth assembly in the new year.

(See Alan Reifmann's Emering Adult Blog for more thoughts on this)

Monday, November 3, 2008

2 teenagers in bed shock

Dr Sharky doesn't watch Soaps, on principle - life just is too short - but he does occasionally feel the need to know what is going on and something caught his eye on Friday. 2 teenage characters in Eastenders, apparrently called Darren and Libby, were going to sleep together. The surprise is, that is all they were planning to do! Ok, I have no idea about the wider plot story and he is probably planning to have is wicked way as part of a devilish plan that will lead to multiple murder, but it was at least good to see teenagers portrayed making a good decision with their sexual behaviour; even if it felt a bit like they were delaying the inevitable, it was at least more postive than we often see.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Morality, media and generational worldviews.

It appears from, where I swim, that the world has gone a bit mad this week and it all revolves around the individuals pictured here. I am sure enough words have been penned about the actually commotion without me adding to it. There were one or two things that caught my attention and may be worthy of futher ponderance, however.

As the world was informed how they should react to this by the tabloid media as usual, even the BBC seemed to give it unwarranted attention in a week when horrible things are happening around our world - there was little attention given to the situation in Congo until the weekend which is very hard to understand. Who decides what gets in the news and what gets left to the back pages of the broadsheets? Who gives the media the right to tell us what we should be outraged about anyway?

Also, what I am about to say is unjustifiably generalised and ageist but has been presented in some of the debate over the issue. Various reports are suggesting that the older generation seemed to express outrage and disgust, while Younger views inteviewed seemd to be less conerned; of couse that is a bit of a media hype "contrast for effect" in itself, but Torin Douglas, not prone to hysteria, also reports that younger Radio 1 listeners are less concerned about what Mr Brand and Mr Ross did.

If there is any truth in this, it causes me to ask the question - is this about young peope having more of a sense of humour as they suggest? Or is it about the younger generation being steeped in post-modern relative morality which means they are less likely to be "ouraged of Epping" and more likely to expect people to be allowed to "live and live"? Perhaps it is more likely that younger people just tend to be more balanced about something that, while it was unacceptable, shouldn't cause an over reaction? Maybe trying to generalise by age is just a waste of time in itself....

Dr Sharky is more concerned that this week has shown, yet again, how the media can dominate the agenda, work hard to manipulate priorities and even create it's own news.

Monday, October 27, 2008

A new way of community?

Maybe as good a place to start with this den of sporadic and unresonable thoughts is with some reflections on articles I came accross in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology about how young people use Facebook and other social networking sites. These relate to "Emerging Adults" (young people from about 18 to about 25, or whenever they consider themselves adults!) and look at how online social networking relates to their development at a key time for their formation of identity. Manago et al present findings on "Self-Presentation and gender on MySpace" and found that college students use MySpace to explore their identity, compare themselves with others socially and express idealised parts of the selves they wish to become. Positively, they suggest this is a place they can "try out" identity as they seek who they are and who they want to be; negatively however, there is a lot of social comparison (is it any more than "real life"?) and increased pressure for female sexual objectification.
Another article in the same journal by Subrahmanyam et al looks at socal networking by the same agegroup and found that emerging adults used online networks to strengthen different aspects of their offline connections - not an earthshattering discovery, but a reassuring one it seems to me, if this is the emphasis compared to relationships not extended to the "real world". Additionally, Steinfield et al found that Facebook users with low self-esteem gained more in bridging social capital than peers with higher self-esteem; they suggest that the online nature of the network can help to reduce barriers in social engagement.

Subrahmanyam writes in the issue's editorial (quote edited by me):
"Young people are living life online and in public via these sites...Our reasoning is that because users are creating and co-creating their online environments through processes of social interaction, one would also expect to see them constructing the same developmental issues online as they do in their offline contexts. Research...confirms that important adolescent issues such as sexuality, identity, peer relations, partner selection, and self-worth are played out in a variety of online contexts frequented by teens such as chat rooms instant messaging and bulletin boards...the studies together show how young people are constructing important developmental processes online, in some ways transforming them and in other ways leaving them unchanged."

It is good that researchers are beginning to look into this area, even if it changes so fast that it is very difficult to research, as it has huge implications for youth workers and for the church. Even in the headlines of these research findings, the negative side of online social networking is hard to miss. But, like any aspect of today's culture, we can't pretend it will go away or that we can "protect" young people from it. Perhaps we should be thinking harder about how to do what we should do with any other aspect of culture:
1. equip them to make good decisions in their engagement in this medium
2. harness what is good and postive as a help to them personally and an aid to good ministry and community building.

Easy to say in broad terms like that, but how to do it exactly...?