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December 24, 2007

Christmas...

How quickly things can change. In the month since the change of government here in Australia there has been a significant shift across the landscape. Suddenly we find ourselves owning the challenges of climate change, facing up afresh to the significant disadvantage suffered by Indigenous Australians, and looking with new eyes at Australia's place in the world. Economic news now draws a dark cloud over 2008 across the world, with most serious impact looming for the less-well-off. A deep malaise seems to have been shaken, and a fresh perspective has taken hold. Where this new-found energy and perspective leads is an open question, but such a significant shift in such a short space of time serves as an important reminder of those who hold to the gospel hope.

Into an oppressed and riven community was born a special child of promise: the long-awaited and anticipated Messiah. But the news was not announced generally for all to hear. It first infiltrated from the margins: announcement of birth to a young lady and her betrothed. Still carrying this news and newly married, they head off to Bethlehem - the wife heavily pregnant - where she gave birth. Again the news was proclaimed to a small and marginal few. Shepherds in the field were the social equivalent of toilet cleaners - yet it was to these that the angels proclaimed the birth of the Christ-child. The news was discovered by some wise men of the East, who came to pay homage while native Israelites remained unaware. Their wisdom extended to warning the parents, leading to the family's flight into Egypt - the very place where Israel had known captivity. When the child came of age, he was proclaimed in the wilderness by a strangely-dressed prophet. He began his ministry by calling as followers fishermen, tax collectors, zealots and the like. Hardly mainstream Israelites. From birth to adulthood, through ministry to death and then on to resurrection, the child of promise gathered the people whom society had discarded or disregarded - hardly the people by whom to wage a peaceful revolution.

Yet as surely as the Christ-child was born, so too hope. In a strange place, amongst odd people, with few recognised resources. But by the power of God this hope has transformed communities, nations, families and individuals through the centuries. In the space of a few short months, from annunciation to birth, the world's landscape was transformed. And we are invited not only to be part of that transformation, but to be transformed by it. In all our frailty, in all our wonder, in all our frustrations... This transformation is to be born in us too!

May the wonder of Christmas, the birth of hope, and the miracle of God-with-us bring new life to your Christmas season, and into God's future.

Posted by gary at 01:02 PM | Comments (0)

December 20, 2007

A Special Christmas Song

If you are sick of conventional carols, here is an unusual "choir" including such classic performers as Neil Diamond, Stryper and Barney... yes, you heard correctly.

Presenting Winter Wonderland sung by the greatest mix of stars our planet has to offer.


(In order of appearance)

Frank Sinatra
Elvis Presley
William Hung
The Partridge Family
Willie Nelson
Macy Gray
The Andrews Sisters
Stryper
Dean Martin
Manhattan Transfer
Barney
Neil Diamond
Barry Manilow
James Taylor
Clay Aiken
Jewel
Johnny Mathis
Brian Setzer
Eurythmics
Tony Bennet

and last but not least...
Mr. Ringo Starr

It truly is a winter wonderland.

Posted by gary at 05:18 PM | Comments (0)

December 18, 2007

Paying Attention?

With so many different signals available to us each day, we learn to switch off - we can become oblivious to noises, sights, even smells while we focus on particular tasks and challenges. However, it seems there is a cost. We suffer from attentional blindness, which results in us missing key pieces of information even when we are trying to attend to it.

This video shows how neuroscientists have demonstrated how this phenomenon occurs, and shows one way in which one can increase attention to notice things that we often miss.

The research shows how our brains become overstimulated and therefore less sensitive to shifts in information. Through prayer and meditation, the mind becomes more alert and more sensitive to the information around us - there are physiological changes which take place.

Perhaps Spurgeon was right when he said that he was so busy that he needed to spend the first three hours in prayer!

Posted by gary at 05:21 PM | Comments (0)

December 17, 2007

Top 10 Quotes for 2007

I know the year isn't over, but that doesn't stop Time magazine from making its determination already!

Top 10 Quotes taken from Time.com
#1. "I really am not the kind of guy that sits here and says, 'Oh gosh, I'm worried about my legacy.'"
- President GEORGE W. BUSH, when asked about his falling approval numbers and mounting criticism of the Iraq War during an interview with CBS' 60 Minutes (Jan. 14, 2007)

#2. "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals, like in your country."
- MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, president of Iran, responding to a question about the treatment of gays and lesbians in Iran during a visit to Columbia University in New York City (Sept. 24, 2007)

#3. "This record is not tainted at all. At all. Period."
- San Francisco Giants slugger BARRY BONDS, after breaking Hank Aaron's Major League Baseball all-time home-run record with his 756th career homer amid rampant speculation that he has used steroids. Bonds has always denied that he ever "knowingly" used performance-enhancing substances, but he was indicted in November for allegedly lying to a federal grand jury about using them (Aug. 7, 2007)

#4. "If you didn't like Darfur, you're going to hate Baghdad."
- Gen. DAVID H. PETRAEUS, warning of the consequences of an early troop withdrawal from Iraq (Aug. 14, 2007)

#5. "This is it. This is where it all ends. End of the road. What a life it was. Some life."
- Virginia Tech gunman CHO SEUNG-HUI, in a chilling video he made and sent to NBC News before killing 32 people and committing suicide in the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history (Apr. 16, 2007)

#6. "I don't think they're piling on because I'm a woman. I think they're piling on because I'm winning."
- HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, on intensifying criticism by rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination (Nov. 2, 2007)

#7. "The planet is in distress and all of the attention is on Paris Hilton. We have to ask ourselves what is going on here?"
- AL GORE, in an interview with the British paper The Sun, before adding that he believes in 10 years it will be too late to save the planet (June 18, 2007)

#8. "I spent the better part of the past three months enduring criticism that is normally leveled at some kind of genocidal tyrant."
- RUPERT MURDOCH, News Corp. owner, on the outcry over his purchase of the Wall Street Journal (Aug. 8, 2007)

#9. "Hello, Condoleezza Rice? You have me to deal with now."
- A MASKED HAMAS GUNMAN, joking into the telephone of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after taking control of his government compound (June 15, 2007)

#10. "Why don't you just shut up?"
- KING JUAN CARLOS, of Spain, to Hugo Chavez at a summit in Chile after the Venezuelan President called former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar a fascist (Nov. 10, 2007)

Posted by gary at 07:03 AM | Comments (0)

December 08, 2007

Parliament of World Religions 2009

I was privileged to attend the formal launch of the Parliament of World Religions 2009 at Federation Square on Thursday morning. This event, held every five years since 1993, and first held in 1893, calls together people of all faiths for dialogue and conversation, in the face of the realities facing our world. We evangelical christians have been skeptical of such calls, wondering what we might find in common with people of other faiths, particularly in the face of the unique call of the gospel and the unique person of Jesus Christ. The preference has been to avoid contact (for the large part), for reasons which generally run counter to the missional call of the gospel.

As we seek to minister in our local settings, we seek understanding of the peoples we are called to reach. By entering dialogue, such understanding is fostered, not only for the different values and ideals held, but also in clarifying what our own faith response might be, and how the gospel intersects with such realities. The Parliament of World Religions seeks to encourage and foster such conversations across people of all faiths. And, in a world such as ours, we ought to be encouraged in dialogue with people who recognise and affirm spiritual values in an openly and unashamedly materialistic setting. The event promises a strong emphasis on the situation facing Indigenous Australians, and our responsibilities in the face of them all.

The gathering will not hold worship events, nor will their be any resolutions. Dirk Vicca, chair of the Parliament of World Religions made a helpful call: "It is not perfection that is important, but direction." In a world where religious beliefs serve as a backdrop to many of the major international challenges, to gather for conversation and understanding is an important call. It matches strongly with Jesus' call to be light and salt in the world.

Posted by gary at 12:37 PM | Comments (0)

December 07, 2007

The Vegetable Orchestra

In keeping with the environmentally sustainable theme, here's an organic orchestra - when you've finished playing, you can share a meal together!

Sadly this invites a litany of puns, whether you carrot all... or not. I'll go no further with that. But if you want to go further, check out their web site, which offers a suite of vegetable tunes.

Posted by gary at 09:56 PM | Comments (0)

December 01, 2007

Can't Think Now, I'm Busy

John Watson from The Age reflects on the importance of down-time:

publication date: December 1, 2007

In my lifetime, the number of Australians has doubled. When last I looked, our population was estimated at 21,150,121 and growing by one every one minute and 44 seconds. A second country has sprung up alongside the one of 10.5 million people recorded at the 1961 census, almost literally so as half of today's population is either foreign-born or born to a migrant parent. Only a minority would argue that Australia has not benefited from the resulting evolution of a more diverse, interesting and dynamic society, but it is also a more crowded country.

Australians are crowded not only by other people, but as a result of countless technological and social developments that, I suspect, have more serious implications for our collective capacity to think, create and remember. The reasons are to be found in the way the brain works, but more of the science later. Such thoughts have nagged at me since I read the writer Paul Theroux's reflections in The New York Times on "America the Overfull", in which he lamented the loss of "a country of enormous silence and ordinariness (and) empty spaces". Theroux acknowledged the seductions of nostalgia — "Yes, it is just silly and fogeyish to yearn for that simpler and smaller world of the past" — but the lost world he describes holds lessons for the creative, innovative nation that Australia aspires to be, as we have been told ad nauseam this past election year.

"I grew up in a country of sudden and consoling lulls, which gave life a kind of pattern and punctuation, unknown now," Theroux wrote. "It was typified by the somnolence of Sundays … There were empty parts of the day, of the week, of the year …" Of course, some people still see the value in setting aside such time each week in defiance of this 24/7 society. (A New Yorker cartoon by Robert Mankoff makes wonderful play of this by depicting a man bearing a briefcase and speaking into his mobile phone as he walks along a busy subway platform: "And remember, if you need anything, I'm available 24/6.")


For me, the contemporary relevance to Australia's "clever country" aspirations lies, paradoxically, in Theroux's recollections of a quieter past and, in particular, of the solitude of a long drive of the sort that we can rarely experience on today's crowded highways, even if we chose not to hop onto the next cheap and convenient commuter flight. Theroux paints the picture perfectly (although the italics are mine): "Late at night, in most places I knew, there was almost no traffic and driving, a meditative activity, could cast a spell. Behind the wheel, gliding along, I was keenly aware of being an American in America, on a road that was also metaphorical, making my way through life unhindered, developing ideas, making decisions, liberated by the flight through this darkness and silence."

When did you last have several hours of unbroken, idle contemplation to yourself? Our lives are crowded, noisier, faster, in almost every way. People, technology such as mobile phones, the internet and other mass communication, our ways of work, have all eaten into our time and space. The imperatives of productivity and efficiency demand that not a minute be wasted. Time is money. But the cost to our quality of thought is immeasurable. We are too busy to think.

This came home to me on election night, when Kevin Rudd delivered his acceptance speech from a lectern bearing the words "New Leadership. Fresh Ideas." Rudd is perhaps the most obviously intelligent politician I have met in the past two decades. Yet even he has succumbed to the pressures of running the political treadmill through a year-long campaign. Two samples from his acceptance speech illustrate how badly he lapsed into unthinking cliche, tautologies and what George Orwell memorably described in his essay, Politics and the English Language, as worn-out, "dying" metaphors.

"Today the Australian people have decided that we as a nation will move forward," Rudd began. "To plan for the future, to prepare for the future, to embrace the future and together as Australians to unite and write a new page in our nation's history." That was apparently so stirring he reprised it later, twice, in a brief speech. "It is time for a new page to be written in our nation's history. The future is too important for us not to work together to embrace the challenges of the future and to carve out our nation's destiny."

Australia's quest for a renewable energy source would be over were we able to harness the spinning of Orwell in his grave. His primary concern was not the aesthetics of language — though he valued that — but that "using stale metaphors, similes and idioms" came "at the cost of leaving your meaning vague", with "phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse". As Orwell explained, "the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear."

There is evidence to show Rudd has thought deeply about issues before this year, but the same cannot be said of last Saturday night's speech. It probably seems unkind to pick on him when so many others are guilty, as Orwell wrote, of using political language "to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind". But I pick on Rudd to show that even someone of his intellect is not immune from the numbing effects of nonstop activity and stress on fresh expressions of thought. We have all experienced the impact of stress and constant interruptions on our train of thought: our computer chimes in to announce the arrival of an email; the mobile goes off for the umpteenth time; a colleague hurries across for a brief consultation. Where were we? The shadow of a thought has already slipped away.

As for taking the time to come up with considered responses to complex problems, bugger that. There's no time to spare in the worlds of business and politics. The pressure is on for instant answers that show we are "on top of the problem". We often hear references to "policy on the run", but when did any politician go into contemplative retreat to think about policy solutions? When snap judgements are demanded and given as an issue arises, is it any wonder that short-sighted policies are the result? Just for once, I'd like to hear a politician ask for time to think about a new problem.

We seem to resent allowing even academics in their "ivory towers" the time that deep thought requires. They must not be spared the demands of productivity and efficiency, not when they are funded from the public purse. Universities are in effect treated as industrial-scale idea factories, required to produce more ideas with immediate applications, and fast. Yet the way the brain works, even the best of brains needs extended quiet time to make sense of existing knowledge and then to arrive creatively at new ideas. Whether big or small, most new ideas come to us in moments of idle contemplation. The worth of original big ideas can hardly be overstated.

An insight into the forces of gravity came to Isaac Newton when he contemplated the fall of an apple from a tree. John Conduitt, Newton's assistant and husband to his niece, described the moment in his account of Newton's life: "In the year 1666 he retired again from Cambridge to his mother in Lincolnshire. Whilst he was pensively meandering in a garden it came into his thought that the power of gravity (which brought an apple from a tree to the ground) was not limited to a certain distance from earth, but that this power must extend further than was usually thought."

Newton was meandering when he experienced his flash of insight, on which he built the foundations for the next two centuries of physics. We sometimes refer to such insights as a eureka moment, in reference to Archimedes' use of the term (Greek for "I have found it") at the moment, more than two millenniums ago, when he realised that the displacement of water depended on an object's volume and density. Legend has it that he was taking a bath at the time. It is no coincidence that neither Newton nor Archimedes was working head down at their workstations when inspiration came — although years of deep thought had preceded the moment the big new idea took shape. Such flashes of insight take place in quiet contemplative moments and involve a distinctive kind of brain activity, which shows up in brain scans, as connections between existing knowledge and a new idea are made. John Howard's prime ministerial walks became a subject for parody, but it isn't just the exercise that he and most of the rest of us need. In his temporary zone of self-created silence, save for the puffing of his entourage, he gave himself time to ponder the problems he confronted, to think. What we know about brain physiology also goes a long way towards explaining the apparent amnesia that operates in modern politics and society. I have struggled to understand, for instance, how journalists who were around at the time could ask Howard why he wouldn't sign the Kyoto Protocol when his government did, to much fanfare, in 1997. Not that most Australians don't suffer similar, apparently inexplicable memory lapses in their professional and private lives. We forget significant events and the sequence in which they took place as we rush on to the next item on the agenda, the next distracting activity.

The answer again lies in brain studies that have confirmed we also need time free of distraction to store long-term memories. For any memory to last, it must be transferred from short-term memory to long-term memory, which involves a physical and chemical process to create a memory trace. The memory needs to be physically embedded by connecting new and old knowledge in the brain. That takes about half an hour, which is why concussion victims cannot recall the period preceding their injury.

Even minor mental interruptions interfere with the memory consolidation process, so we remember best when we are unhurried and undistracted by the intrusion of other thoughts or demands on us.

The greater the focus of our attention, the greater the amount of information brought into short-term memory and then transferred and retained as long-term memory.

Social distractions, lack of sleep, anxiety and stress all diminish attention and memory; conversely, being rested and relaxed improves our ability to concentrate, think and remember. Aerobic exercise is also significant because increasing the supply of oxygen to the brain improves its functioning. It's not just politicians who work long and often unsociable hours. Most of us are probably deep on the deficit side of the brain's ledger of requirements for effective thinking and memory. Earlier this year, a Human Rights Commission report found that 16 years of economic growth had left Australians wealthier but time-poor and stressed. "A truly prosperous society is one that values time as well as money," it concluded.

The crush and rush of modern life impoverishes all of us by crippling our creative capacity and diminishing our wealth of memory.

We have been deprived of the long silences in which we can interrogate our own minds and wait patiently for previously unrevealed truths to emerge. We are poorer as people for this and, ultimately, poorer as a country whose hopes for a prosperous future depend heavily on the development of human intellect in a knowledge economy.

In politics and workplaces and at home we do so many things in old ways simply because we don't have time to take stock of what we do and think of new ways that are more efficient and more economically and environmentally sustainable.

It is not only governments that run out of ideas. We can change governments, but if we truly value ideas and creativity we'd also make changes to our crowded lives. At home and at work, we should all aim to create time and space for the simple, vital act of thinking.

John Watson is a senior Age writer.

Posted by gary at 01:10 PM | Comments (0)

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