LET YOUR GENTLENESS BE EVIDENT TO ALL

Twitter lit up this week over the issue of faith schools and the Green Paper proposal to lift the 50% admissions cap for all new faith free schools. Much of what has been written is based on incorrect facts and twisted statistics, but a considerable proportion came into the category of sneering derision of people who teach in them. Christians working in education are apparently sub-intellectuals at best, and child abusers at worst. It’s been an outpouring of pure hatred.

Then I listened to an interview with Professor Brian Cox, and my faith in decent humanity was restored. Sadly, he was commenting on exactly the same issue – the propensity of people to create toxic ghettoes with their refusal to engage in open-minded dialogue. People, he suggests, position themselves into compartments with others of similar worldviews and then proceed to attack all other worldviews that don’t align with their own. Debate gets drowned in the polarisation of personal opinions.

Science and religion, Cox argues, are not incompatible. As he points out, religion is concerned with meaning and science is concerned with understanding evidence. There is no scientific proof that God exists. Nor is there any proof that He does not. Almost all known cultures in the world have a creation story – that, in itself, is proof of the human search for meaning. A recent survey of secondary school pupils showed that 45% of teenagers believe in God, even while they recognise that science says God does not exist. 52% believe that life has an ultimate meaning. A purposeful education gives us the chance to explore questions about who we are, and why we are here. Science can explain what – it can’t explain why.

In the course of the interview, Professor Cox was asked what he understood ‘wonder’ to mean. He defined it as ‘noticing that there’s something worth exploring’ and then going out and exploring it. And that’s exactly what Christian educators do. They aren’t about indoctrinating students into a particular view, or creating converts to boost their church numbers. They are about opening windows onto the world and encouraging students to wonder and explore. Within that exploration, faith plays a critical role in providing meaning.

I had an interesting conversation with a humanist a while back which ended with, ‘There’s no point in talking to you because you’ll never agree with me’. Not, notice, we will never agree with each other. Sure enough, he hasn’t spoken to me since. Only talking to people who agree with us, or whom we think we can make agree with us, just increases the toxic cycle.

In strong communities, people don’t always agree, but they do know how to disagree well. Contrary to public opinion, we Christians don’t don tin foil helmets to talk to the sky wizard. We are people who live in relationship with a loving God. So, as we engage in dialogue, can we, as the apostle Paul exhorted, ‘let our gentleness be evident to all ‘(Philippians 4:5) regardless of what you think about God?

 

MINDFULNESS: THE ULTIMATE SELFIE OF THE SOUL

This blog was first published in October 2015, but following yet another call, this time from Edward Timpson, for mindfulness training to become compulsory in schools, it seems timely to publish it again.

Improved behaviour? Improved GCSE results? A drop in the re-offending rate of former prisoners? It sounds like a good idea, whatever the strategy is to achieve it. Following a yearlong enquiry into its efficacy, MPs this week were introduced to mindfulness, which, it is claimed, can deliver all of the above – the great panacea for the human condition. A call to roll out mindfulness, or secular meditation, across the public sector is expected to come soon – not to nurture the growth of children and young people, but to raise standards and improve productivity. It’s the same message as the one underpinning character education – fix people, fix the economy.

So what is it? The tradition of mindfulness is rooted in Buddhism and stretches back over 2400 years. It’s about learning to control your breathing, your thoughts and your feelings – a form of cognitive therapy. It’s about directing focused attention to experiences as they happen in order to understand oneself and one’s responses. Some psychologists suggest that it is a technique which should not be consumed blindly or even that it can exacerbate negative feelings, including panic and depression.

The originator of mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, makes a big claim about its effectiveness, saying that those using it ‘will be addressing some of the most pressing problems of society at their very root – at the level of the human heart and mind.’ He certainly identifies the crux of the issue – the most pressing problems of society are, indeed, caused by the human heart and mind, but by what the Bible calls sin, and the problem of sin can’t be solved by secular meditation. As the prophet Jeremiah pointed out: ‘The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure’ (Jeremiah 17:9 NIV). Only God has the cure, through the forgiveness of our sin.

So if mindfulness is about changing the human heart, can Christians engage in it? No, because we cannot transform our own hearts and minds. Christian meditation is different from all other forms of meditation because it involves focusing our minds outward on God rather than inward on ourselves. There are three components to Christian meditation; it is grounded in the Bible, it responds to the love of God and it leads to worship of God.

The Bible tells us to ‘Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it’ (Joshua 1:8). So rather than focus on personal thoughts, feelings and experiences, we focus on God’s word, allowing God’s love to fill our thoughts as we worship Him.

The key to our behaviour becoming more like Christ’s isn’t to be found in mindfulness. It’s to be found in allowing our minds to be transformed so that we see our behaviour and interpret our experiences not from a personal perspective, but from a God-perspective. We don’t ask how we might speak or act, we ask what God would have us say and how God would have us act. As the apostle Paul wrote: ‘let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect’ (Romans 12:2 NLT).

While there’s no doubt that relaxation and the ability to identify feelings and their impact on our relationships are essential life skills, secular meditation is not the way to develop them. Humanity is not the protagonist in God’s story – God is. That’s why Paul urges us to: ‘Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honourable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise’ (Philippians 4:8).

In contrast, mindfulness is nothing more, and nothing less, than the ultimate selfie of the soul.

BUILDING SOLID FOUNDATIONS

This week’s return to school has seen the predictable blowing of a single issue out of all proportion – in this case, a decision by the Head of Hartsdown Academy in Margate to send home pupils who failed to conform to the school’s uniform policy. I don’t intend to discuss this in detail – the case has been cogently argued by Behaviour Tsar Tom Bennett in his recent blog. But in the light of Team GB’s recent Olympic success, this story set me thinking. Here’s why.

Several years ago, I taught a child who, by the age of 10, was hovering on the edges of anti-social behaviour and showed every sign of becoming lost, despite the best endeavours of both school and family. He was a talented footballer, but spent more time in playground fights sparked by disputed decisions than he did actually playing. Most days, he ended up banned. He was disengaged in the classroom, sullen and often angry.

Football was the great and single passion of his life – watching it, playing it and talking about it. He regularly represented the school in league matches and generally managed to control himself, for fear of losing his place on the team. It was pretty much the only thing that kept him in school.

One day he was spotted by a talent scout. Following a trial, he was offered a place with the local First Division club junior team – but there were conditions. He had to change his diet. He was no longer allowed to join in with playground football or school league games. He had to commit to working in the classroom, showing respect to school staff and club trainers. Any infringement of the school’s behaviour code, any single incident of aggression, any suspension from school or any missed training session without good reason would mean instant dismissal from the programme. He would have to achieve 5 GCSEs at the end of Year 11 in order to progress beyond the junior team. To succeed, he had to change his life.

The conditions might seem draconian, but there was a purpose. To become a successful professional footballer, he would need to develop self-discipline in all areas of his life, and he would need to commit to a new lifestyle. He did commit, very willingly, and overnight, he turned his life around.

This has been an exciting summer of sport, as we’ve celebrated the outstanding success of our Olympians. But each and every person on Team GB understands, as my pupil did, about discipline, commitment and the need to set aside personal choices in order to succeed. Without accepting the discipline of their trainers, and the need to eat, sleep and train in accordance with their training programmes, none of them would have been there.

Why, I wonder, do we celebrate this determination and discipline in our athletes and footballers, yet cry foul when that very same attitude is enforced by a school Head? In order to get the best out of school life, pupils need to commit – to listening, working, to being determined and to keeping the rules. School is where young people learn how communities, society and the workplace operate. Staff who are lazy about enforcing rules are actually doing their students a grave injustice, allowing them to think that they can please themselves about which rules they keep and which ones they ignore. Life outside of school doesn’t work like that, so life in school shouldn’t either. Everything worth achieving costs effort, commitment and focus.

And what is true in the physical realm is also true in the spiritual realm. The writer of the Hebrews urges us to ‘run with perseverance the race marked out for us’ (Hebrews 12:1), while the apostle Paul writes: ‘Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever’ (1 Corinthians 9:24-25).

As another school year gets underway, think about the example you set your students in commitment, perseverance and determination. They are values that help pupils to build solid foundations, not just during school years, but for whatever their future lives hold for them.