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Twelve pounds fifty

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The other day, I was walking past someone sat under a bridge reading a book. He was frustrated, he told me, as he had come “this close” to getting off the streets. True enough, what he needed was ridiculous: £12.50 to get somewhere (which he was told he would get reimbursed later!), and meet a landlord who had agreed to rent out a place to him. That situation taught, or refreshed a few things for me:

Twelve pounds fifty

1. One life can be changed by something ridiculously small.
Without these £12.50, he would have stayed on the streets, probably despondent.
With these £12.50, there was a chance he could find a home, get off the streets and get a fresh start.
Every penny helps” is something we hear a lot from charities – and I tend to admit that in an “it all adds up” kind of way. But it’s so much more than that – a small amount can be crucial on its own.

2. It is easier than you’d think to give up close to the end, because of a setback.
The amount of stuff this guy seemed to have fought for – finding a landlord willing to take him without much money, getting the promise of being reimbursed some of his way off the street, etc. – is a testimony that he really tried hard to turn his life around.
But when I met him, he had given up. There was no way he could get the sufficient amount in time. His frustration from it was visible – nearly tangible, but he wasn’t asking for help.
Sure, it is important to start – and I’ve tried to explain this before – but it is just as important to see things through. Setbacks will come along the way, but they are no reason to give up trying.

3. Hope is fragile, but can sometimes be rekindled easily.
He had all but given up. The money got him to get up and run to the station. All of a sudden, it became possible again. As it turns out, I bumped into him again the next day – where he was in a hurry to go and try again (seemingly, there had been a setback the day before). The change was great – from static and seated to standing and running.
He had hope again – and that was rekindled very easily.

4. Different responses are appropriate at different times.
Lecturing him about contents insurance (which would be quite cheeky from someone who does not have contents insurance anyway), or assuring him of God’s love for him there and then, would probably not have gotten through to him. Worse, they could have been damaging. There is no set formula to rekindle hope in someone. Sometimes, all that is needed is a few words, sometimes it’s action. It’s important to discern where to use each.

5. Sometimes, you have to actively look for where to give.
Just because he didn’t ask, doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be given. Of course, it is easier to give when asked – but many reasons stop people from coming to you to ask: pride, despondency, etc. So be on the look out for people who need your input, whatever the shape. Be ready.

6. Giving takes many shapes.
There’s monetary gifts. There’s giving your time, or your attention. There’s the trust the landlord gave him when he decided to let him in without guarantees. There’s prayer. That means that there is always something you and I can give.

7. Giving never happens in a vacuum.
Those £12.50 were only what was left of what was needed. There had been, presumably, people before me who had given this guy their money and their trust (the total amount was in the £60 region, I think). There will be more people too.
Celebrating this is key to building a community of people who share in the humility of service, rather than in the boastfulness of achievement.

8. Giving is best in a relationship, but giving can start a relationship.
I wanted to know he made it. I wanted to let him know I cared, too. But I didn’t know him, and had no way of chasing it all up. A relationship allows for so much more than momentary giving. But it has to be a healthy relationship between equals – not one of dependance. And the balance is hard to strike when giving is at the core of the relationship – I’ve messed it up twice so far and have yet to get it right, but I’m getting better at it.

9. Sometimes, giving doesn’t lead to what you planned.
I wanted my input to get him off the streets. As I mentioned earlier, it didn’t work out on the night, as he told me when I bumped into him the next day. Control stops the moment you give the money, and that’s something to accept as and when you give. Then, when it doesn’t work out, it’s no reason to stop giving altogether.

10. It’s alright not to know.
There is a small chance that this was a scam. I don’t believe it was, but it is possible. Not knowing what my money ended up doing is fine – not pleasant, but fine. Because it stopped being my money the moment I gave it. The only valid reason to chase up the result of my giving, is in order to keep on helping, if and when necessary.
At the same time, it is nice to know we were useful. So if you’re on the receiving end, do tell your helpers that they have been useful.

10. Tomorrows aren’t safe.
Like this guy’s, your house may burn and you may lose all your possessions. There are a few things that are beyond sudden damage: God, and, hopefully, friends. Know to place your trust in them and to nurture your relationships with both.

11. The damages of the culture of entitlement and all the criteria for entitlement that come with it are staggering. If that guy were in more dire need – if he were on drugs, for instance – he would have had access to a shelter. And he was aware of that. I totally get why these people should get more help; but in a culture of consequences, drugs can appear as an easy way out.
The same culture stops us from realising what life can be like when you stop getting NHS – because, after all, everyone is entitled to NHS support… but for some reason (involving missing paperwork), this guy didn’t.

12. “Refunding” is not always enough.
Sure, at the end of the day, you will end up (roughly) the same. And better a system where a refund is possible than a system with no aid at all. But this system only works for those who have the cash to advance; and was not enough in this case. What’s free after all is taken into account is not free at the point of use and this should be kept in mind.

12 ½. You can’t always play it safe.
This ties in with the above. Refunding means getting the receipt, and means being sure that the money was used in the way you intended to be used. But trust is vital in giving. And that trust, I would argue, should not have to be earned.

9 lessons from 3-foot grass


I dislike gardening. I don’t even really enjoy having a garden. Somehow, we left our garden fairly (read: completely) unattended. The grass was about hip high a few weeks ago; when we finally got around to doing something about it. But the grass was too tall to use a mower on, and too wet to use a strimmer on (not that we have one anyway). So I went at it with shears and a rake. It was slow, not very pleasant, but little by little, the garden looked nicer. Yesterday, after a dry spell (finally!), the landlords came with strimmers and finished the job. Here’s what I got from the whole experience:

Picture of tall grass

1. You can’t do anything without tools. If you don’t have anything sharp (ish), there is no way you can do anything. Equip yourself: read, listen, seek wisdom. But don’t do it on your own, because you won’t be able to be discerning enough. Without tools, all you’ll do is uproot handfuls of grass and end up with a patchy garden. Without spiritual tools, you’ll end up with disconnected islets of knowledge which won’t help you and quite frankly don’t look good at all.

2. There is no magic tool. I had never used a strimmer myself, but somehow, I imagined that it was just a matter of quickly moving the tool over the grass, and that it would be done in next to no time with strimmers. The landlords took over a full day to do it. Surrounding yourself with books that just sit on the shelves is useless. Reading a ton of blogs (this one included) without allowing them to affect you is useless. Butterflying between leaders is useless. Going to three different churches (something I used to do) is not helpful if you’re just listening. When you decide to use a tool, you need to know that you’re going to commit to it, and allow it to affect you.

3. “Not having the right tool” can be an excuse; as can the specific circumstances. Oh yes, it was too wet, and we did not have a strimmer. But that never meant we couldn’t use shears. I may not find myself in a place with the most helpful structures around me… but it does not mean that it allows me to just sit on my arse and do nothing. Wherever you are, make sure you’re not using lack of ressources as an excuse. Don’t even do it to talk about your past, lest you give people the impression that your excuses are valid excuses and use them themselves.

4. Tasks generally look daunting until you put yourself to them. This has been repeatedly true: when I started cutting the grass with the shears, it looked better, and a lot of groundwork could be achieved quickly. It was slow, yes, but I could see the progress, square foot by square foot. When I had to write a disseration, I did not know where to start and had empty page syndrome for a long time… until I just decided to give a go at writing. Sure, it wasn’t perfect, but little by little, the word count was reached, and then improvements were made upon what was there. So when you have a vision but do not feel it’s possible – still, give it a try. Little by little, you will get there.

5. If your work is not perfect, it can still be useful. Using shears to cut grass will never get it to a perfect green, but it did allow the landlords to use the mower directly onto this patch rather than using the strimmer. We live in communities. What you do will generally benefit someone – but you have to let other people pick it up. When you’re growing spiritually, you’re also helping others bounce off your growth. So keep on growing!

6. It wouldn’t have got to that stage if I had taken more care of it throughout the “summer” months (inverted commas necessary: this is, after all, England). Discipline is important as a frequent practice. Depending on the activity, different frequences are appropriate: I wouldn’t expect to mow the lawn daily; but finding the appropriate rhythm is key. For this blog, I’ve settled on weekly updates – and it does make writing easier to tackle. Reading the Bible can be a daily or a weekly activity – but once you found your rhythm, don’t slack, or you will find it harder to get back to it.

7. Cutting clutter allows more light to come through. Or maybe that’s just the sun that’s finally come out. But our living room is brighter. Similarly, with spiritual growth: you can’t just keep everything you believe.

8. Sometimes, the inspiration comes where you least expect it. I had the idea to use the shears whilst biking past people who were doing that to their own front lawn. Blog ideas can come from snippets of everyday life, as can spiritual growth. The important part is not to let that inspiration go unattended.

9. Boy, grass does grow quickly when there’s lots of rain and lots of sun! I could probably wrangle a way to tie that in with spiritual growth, but I’ll leave that to you: comment away!

Oh Noes! They used Comic Sans!

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This week, the Higgs boson, the subatomic particle which is, according to the standard model, responsible for mass, was finally observed at CERN. The world rejoiced (okay, I’m allowed a little emphasis) at this feat of modern science; yet for the most part (me included), we do not understand why it is important. Indeed, as far as my understanding of the matter goes, this is no groundbreaking revolution of the world of science. It was merely an empirical confirmation of what was already thought to be true; and yes, that’s important, just not very exciting to me. And there’s plenty of lessons in the human side of the discovery and reaction to the Higgs boson. But what came up a few times in my social feed and elsewhere was this:

Respectable scientists used Comic Sans!

Image: modified from Christopher Hilton’s original photograph, under CC license.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned at uni, it’s that you should never, EVER, use Comic Sans. It makes hipsters cry. And definitely does not look serious. So you’d expect scientists, who spend their time in places of such refined learning, to not use Comic Sans. So why did they do it? Here’s a few possibilities:

1. Their computers only had Wingdings, Papyrus and Comic Sans installed. For the sake of your own sanity, do not visualise a presentation in Papyrus.
Unlikely, though.

2. Comic Sans is actually a really good font. (link contains crude language, but is quite amusing).
Regardless of personal preference, though, Comic Sans does convey some level of light-heartedness which hardly seems appropriate in a scientific presentation. I once went to a church where the stained glass had Comic Sans (with bad kerning on top of that) – it felt out of place. And that’s what I ended up focusing on for a while. There is something to be said about choosing the right style for the right message and the right audience.

3. They were trolling.
If so, hats off to a very successfully performed troll with a massive audience.

4. They misjudged their audience. (a.k.a. Didn’t they think of all the poor hipsters?)
It is also possible they used Comic Sans in an attempt to make “hard science” more appealing – forgetting Comic Sans stopped being cool in the last millennium. By trying too hard to be trendy, hip, they ended up diluting their message and looking fairly ridiculous to part of the scientific community. But that’s assuming all the audience is thinking in the same way as us. It’s assuming that the presentation was for us. It is very easy to be critical of work which is actually aimed at other people too. A few years back, I would look at sermons which looked very shallow with some distaste, and would hold it against the church. Not all the sermons are just for us as individuals, and it’d be a mistake to dismiss a whole community on that basis alone.

5. They knew their aim and their audience
Subatomic physics is hard stuff. But with so much effort poured into the detecting of the Higgs boson, there was a need to share those findings with a wider audience than scientists. If the aim of the presentation was to present results to general reporters, and not to give a quick run-down of what was actually achieved, Comic Sans is an effective signpost to say “this is not the full detail.”

In any case (except #1), the use of Comic Sans was not innocent. It betrays something we all need to think about before sharing our work: what is my aim in sharing this? And who am I sharing it with? Knowing your audience is key to not broadcasting in a vacuum.

10 ways in which the Queen is like Jesus


1. She is only there through her father. Not only does Jesus proceed from God the Father, but the authority he carries he receives from him.

2. It is frightfully easy to live one’s life forgetting she’s in charge. This is particularly true for policy-makers, democratically-elected leaders who present manifestos. But ultimately, they carry out the Queen’s instructions. The laws need to be vetted by the Queen before they come into place. This knowledge of who we work for is all too readily forgotten as we seek our own goals.

3. Her position at the helm is criticised by a vocal and self-centred population, generally on the grounds of “common sense” or “independence”. The Queen is a waste of the taxpayer’s money, they say. There’s no reason that anyone should be in such a position through birth, they say. People should be allowed to decide for themselves what they want (implying, of course, monarchists are stupid or just holding on fast to their old, traditional ways). Can you see a parallel forming here?

4. Her birthday is celebrated on a day on which she wasn’t born. Fact.

5. She is the head of the church. Well. Of a church, but that church has had such an inclusive approach over the past few decades that her role as Defender of the Faith can be seen as far more inclusive than simply concerned with the Church of England.

6. She brings stability to an ever-changing world. The Queen has seen 12 different Prime Ministers, 12 different US presidents, during her sixty years of reign; and has brought both unity and stability to the nation – through her own, unchanging existence, which is embedded into the fabric of England in a variety of ways.

7. She has ordained the manufacturing of tea. And of many other things. Including coffee, weirdly; though everybody knows coffee is the drink of heretics! ;-)

8. She loves all, even those who broke away from the yoke of British monarchy. If you’re reading this from the USA, friends… hint, hint!

9. Her very existence is cause for celebration. Though I’m sure some will disagree with me, this week-end’s celebrations have shown that some people hold that to be true. But do we get as excited about Jesus?

10. Some people only remember her at Christmas. The Queen’s Christmas message is a highlight of the festive season for me, and her love for her people always shines through it. But the rest of the year, except for the last couple of years, she isn’t in the limelight that often.

As I close this post, I feel it necessary to do two things:
a) make it very clear that I am not suggesting in any way, shape or form, that the Queen is God. This post is light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek! Still, I am convinced that some of the parallels can make us relate more easily to our own understanding of our relationship with Christ.
b) congratulate Her Majesty on sixty years of wonderful leadership. May you have a very happy Diamond Jubilee!