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For a while I have wanted to write a blog about doubt as it’s a matter very close to my heart. If you’re brought up in a Christian background or attend churches where doubt isn’t openly discussed and if you do have doubts – or simply questions which would challenge the mainstream view in your church- this can be a very isolating and scary experience.

This isn’t a blog isn’t intended at providing a recipe for doubt so that it will go away. Everyone responds to doubt differently so I’m not sure such a recipe exists and besides, I don’t think that all doubt is bad or wrong. The blog is more an attempt to share experiences and reflections so that Christians who do experience doubt can feel slightly less alone – and maybe provide some thoughts on how to live with those doubts.

I have grappled with doubt and questions pretty much since I became a Christian in my teenage years. Over the years that has meant real wrestling with God, with my faith and from time to time, feeling like a square peg stuck in a round hole. Sometimes it’s felt like I’m standing on the edge of the abyss, peering into a dark void of uncertainty. Sometimes it’s felt like being in a house whilst an earthquake is going on, with all the walls shaking and my favourite pictures falling off the walls, the frames smashing on the floor.

In short, it has been and can be tough. My own personal story is that I have a faith in Jesus which has evolved through the doubts and questions, rather than falling away – although there have been times where I have felt like I wasn’t really a Christian at all. There are times when I have felt like I was just going through the motions, when God felt a million miles away and when I was functionally, pretty much an atheist. I am really grateful as I feel that faith in Jesus is a gift. I listen to stories of atheists who would like to believe but simply cannot and stories of ex Christians whose doubts and questions drove them away from Jesus and the church – and find that faith is not something that is an easy thing to grasp for everyone. I don’t want to make any statements of faith or doctrinal belief as for me, the biggest statement of my faith is my life in relation to Jesus and the choices I make – which cannot really be contained in a blog. I think you need to get to know a person I think to understand what their faith in Jesus really means, beyond a list of beliefs.

The topic of doubt is so big that rather than bore everyone and give myself a headache I’m going to try and deal with it in installments. I think the first thing to do is to get some clarity of what we are talking about here. Doubt when it comes to Christianity and God is a very big and broad term – imagine it as a huge blanket, a groundsheet if you will, which is used to cover a whole myriad of states of the heart and mind when it comes to God. In order to try and make sense of things a bit I have lumped doubt into three categories – intellectual doubt, emotional doubt and doctrinal doubt.

Once I’ve explored these different types of doubt I’ll finish with looking at how we as the church might respond to the doubters amongst us – and what that might look like in the context of seeking to love them and love God. I’ll share some useful books and resources I have come across along the way too.

Intellectual doubt

Does God exist? Is the Bible reliable? Was Jesus who he said he was? Did the resurrection really happen? Why does God not act in the way he did in Biblical times?

Have these questions ever crossed your mind? I think intellectual doubts and questions like this are a fairly natural result of growing up in a society that encourages critical thinking and rational thought. At school I remember doing history exams where I had to look at different sources of evidence and decide how reliable they were. In science I had to make hypotheses and then use evidence to prove or disprove them. In English literature we analysed books and speculated about the different points the authors could be making. To be honest, for a naturally curious person who thinks a lot, it would have been more surprising if I hadn’t started applying the critical mind that my education gave me, to my faith.

It seems to me that intellectual doubts lead in different directions and bring out different reactions. For some people, their doubt causes them to lose their faith completely (have a look at Jonathan Edward’s story).  It would seem to me that if questioning their faith isn’t something a person has been brought up to do (or if they had, only to a point), the whole process can then cause a person’s faith take a large hit, or even crumble. I’ve heard it described as the house of cards effect – if you remove one card from a house of cards, the whole thing falls down. If you take the same approach to faith in Jesus, having a faith like a house of cards, it won’t be possible to adjust any of your beliefs without risking all of them falling to pieces. It’s an all or nothing situation.

If you have the time I would really encourage you to read this five part blog by Vanessa James (an ex Christian). Vanessa was brought up in a strongly conservative evangelical Christian culture and went through what she called a, “Christian detox” deconstructing her faith through critical analysis. Mike McHargue would be another example, being an elder in a Baptist church whilst secretly journeying towards atheism, participating in online atheist forums and doing reams of research.

There are others though who have had intellectual doubts and rather than it destroy their faith, it has simply caused it to evolve and change. Rachel Held Evans explored her doubts and found it meant saying goodbye the way she had approached faith in her teenage years and early twenties. What emerged was a new type of faith which she actually felt was more reasonable and which she owned for herself, albeit not a faith with the iron clad certainty that she had grown up with. She chronicles her journey in her book, “Evolving in Monkey Town.

Intellectual doubt works both ways of course. Probably the most famous intellectual doubter from an atheistic point of view is CS Lewis who after questioning his atheism, became a theist and eventually became a Christian. There’s an interesting conversation here between Vanessa James and an American academic, Holly Ordway who was raised in a non-religious household and converted to Christianity – and then Catholicism when she was an adult.

Mike and Vanessa’s stories are worth checking out as their journey into atheism is only part of their story, but the thing that ties them and Rachel together is that the process of deconstruction (and potentially reconstruction) was a deeply emotional one. Being brought up in Christian cultures where deep questioning was not encouraged, being people for whom God was precious and the idea of losing him was like losing a dear friend, the process of questioning was full of emotion. Whether that be fear of losing everything, a sense of freedom in realising they certain things that had weighed them down weren’t (in their opinion) true, or sadness at the realisation they no longer believed the things they had before – it was an emotional ride.

I think many of us as Christians fear asking honest intellectual questions as we are scared of what the answers might be. We have a Christian comfort blanket around us as it were and we are terrified of what might happen if the answers to those questions rip it off. If we have been brought up in fundamentalist backgrounds (where the list of beliefs which are required to be a Christian are pretty long and pretty rigid in terms of how they can be interpreted), then the fear can be even greater. We may feel that a shift in our “fundamentals” (and I put that word in quotes as I personally feel there are often things included in fundamentals of belief which are not in fact fundamentals at all)  puts the whole structure of belief at risk. The house of cards effect basically starts to come into play.

The problem with that attitude is that whilst you can bury the questions, in my personal experience they don’t ever really go away. They can actually impede you experiencing a deepening of your relationship with God because they are always nagging away, like a toothache one tries to ignore by eating on the other side of the mouth or avoiding ice cream.

There are certain questions which I have which I don’t think will ever go away. How can a good God allow things such as genocide and rape? Is the Bible the word of God? Did everything happen literally as described in the Bible or is it more man’s interpretation of God? And that’s just the beginning. I’ve listened to a lot of podcasts, done a lot of reading…and I’ve realised….there are many answers to these questions and they often contradict each other. You can go down the scientific route but science does not answer philosophical questions around meaning. It also cannot deal with morality or the spiritual realm. When it comes to philosophy, there is always another layer, another angle. Trying to find answers to these questions is, in my experience, like trying to navigate your way through a complex of rabbit warrens. It’s never ending and very stressful! On all of my questions I have found very good arguments in many different directions – the atheists have their arguments (philosophers and scientists), other faiths have theirs, and Christians have theirs. Personally, I’ve had to come to the conclusion that “I don’t know” is the best answer I can give to many questions – and that in itself has been very liberating.

Here’s why. A really key thing for me is to realise has been that my faith in Jesus does not depend purely on intellectual assent of certain concepts and rational argument and that no one in this life has all the answers. I live in a post enlightenment European culture so there is no denying things like reason are important to me. But Christianity existed pre Enlightenment so I doubt very much this kind of intellectualised approach to faith was the predominant one amongst the early church. Yet they still managed to nurture a meaningful faith and follow Jesus. Nurturing faith is different to conducting critical analysis – it’s not that we leave our brains at the door, but it goes way beyond being persuaded by an intellectual argument.

Whilst I will always try to grapple with questions and explore them (my bookshelf and podcast archive being testimony to this!) the thing which effects my relationship with God the most in terms of my actions and the intimacy I experience, is actually the time I spend with him and how I choose to respond to him. Mike McHargue has some really sound advice for the doubter, advising that rather than tie yourself in knots about the things you are not sure about, choose to pray and mediate on the things you do have a degree of certainty on. So for example, on a very basic level,  if you believe God exists and is the source of life, try talking to God about that, ponder that, meditate on it, let it soak in, ask God what that means for you, for the world, practice listening and waiting for him to speak – and see what grows from that. Simplifying things in this way has helped me to move away from a faith which causes mental distress into a faith which can actually grow. A faith which has strong foundations which are actually from God – not borrowed from other people whether that be church leaders, teachers or my own family. A faith where I have a desire to read the Bible because I want to connect with God, not because it’s something I feel I should do and something I can only do if I come to certain pre-proscribed conclusions.

Spiritual disciplines such as silence, meditative prayer, reading the Bible in the lectio divinia tradition, studying the Bible, service within my community, regular confession with my husband…(have a read of the “celebration of discipline” by Richard Foster) have pushed me towards becoming a follower of Jesus much more than any apologetics argument ever has done. Because what is faith in Jesus anyway? Is it being intellectually certain of certain beliefs and, therefore, following Jesus? Or could it include not being 100% sure but making the choice to follow him anyway? Is that maybe how faith might grow?

I read a book recently called “Love Does” which talks a lot about how faith in Jesus is actually made visible through loving action. It reminded me of what Dietrich Bonheoffer says in his book, The Cost of Discipleship that it’s pretty impossible to separate faith from obedience in terms of the order in which things happen for a follow of Christ. I personally have found that the disciplines above have meant that I am more able to love, more able to take steps of obedience in the midst of uncertainty, in the midst of doubt. Those disciplines, I believe, position me to be able to receive and hear from God, meaning that whilst the doubts are still there, they are not in the driving seat.

There has been so much talk since the referendum – so much has been said and written. I don’t have much else to say which hasn’t already been said in terms of analysis of what happened and why – whether it was good leave the EU or whether we should have stayed. I did my own research and thinking to cast my own vote – but feel like I was only scratching the surface of a really complicated topic.

I’m not posting this as an EU expert – but I did want to reflect on the level of “other-ing” I heard from both sides of the EU debate after the vote. Huge sweeping statements were made about Bremainers by those who voted Leave. Massive generalisations were made about those who voted to Leave by Bremainers.

And these generalisations were largely negative, failing to understand the context and humanity behind people’s decisions. I picked up the following descriptions from my Facebook newsfeed and from some articles I read.

Leave voters were described as racist, bigots, ignorant, having lower intelligence, “fucking baby boomers” not having a sense of community, only voting on an anti immigration platform and willfully betraying the future of the young.

Remain voters were described as middle class elitists, intolerant, establishment supporters, out of touch, snobs, too fearful to challenge the status quo, betrayers of their country, sore losers and anti democratic.

Both of these characterisations are deeply offensive and I believe overly simplistic. I tend to think that the reasons behind people’s votes were complex – as often is the case with big decisions. They have their roots in history; in the actions of governments going as far back as Thatcher,’s government in the 80s; in the gulf between different groups in societies; (North and South; old and young; middle class and working class; white British and ethnic minorities to begin with); in different ideas about how to go about achieving a better future for the country.

My personal opinion is that we had a vote informed by decades of experience and visions of the future which the media, and then the two campaigns, managed to translate into votes by explaining that experience and future vision using the narrative of fear. Yes there were hardliners, extremists, voting on both sides, but I strongly believe that they were in the minority. Most people were either scared, pissed off – or a bit of both. And with this referendum – your vote REALLY counted. There were Remainers and Brexiters across all the political parties so there were no “safe” seats as it were.

Both campaigns played hard and fast with fear – fear that the economy would never recover; fear that freedom of movement would mean no jobs for local people; fear of isolationism and undermining peace; fear of losing control.

As a result of all this, in the referendum aftermath, people started to talk about those who voted the “other” way, using the stereotypes above. Suddenly, we put judgements based on our knowledge of peoples characters and personalities on the backburner and instead made our judgements based on their referendum vote and the type of person the campaigns told us those people were likely to be like, through the rhetoric they were using.

I’ve heard of stories of closet Leave voters (closet as they were concerned about damaging relationships through declaring their vote) listening to their friends who voted Remain, pour out how betrayed they felt, how they felt like they’ve lost their country, how scared they were as they felt a tide of racism had been unleashed and that the economy was going to tank. I’m not surprised they were afraid – if they were making their judgments on the doom prophecies of the Remain campaign, the hand wringing of the Guardian and the racist rantings of Nigel Farage.

I’ve heard stories of Remainers listening to people who voted Leave talking about how they now “have their country back”, how everything is now going to get better for them as we’ve left the EU, how we will be “British Bulldogs and not Brussels Sprouts”. I’m not surprised many Leave voters felt afraid and disempowered if they were basing their judgments on the “Take back control” mantra of the Leave campaign and the fear based propaganda that is otherwise known as the Sun, the Mail and the Express.

At the end of the day the majority voted to Leave. The country was split in two as it was a very small majority. However, I feel that now we have all licked our wounds, the vote could be a real opportunity for some bridge building, to  look beyond the simplistic reductionism of BOTH campaigns and do what we can to understand why people voted in the way that they did, to not judge them for it if we disagree with them and to look beyond the stereotype of the campaigns to the humanity of the people and where they are coming from. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t stand up against things that we find abhorrent and that are alive and well amongst hardliners, things such as racism or elitism – but to judge each person as a complex individual, not as a label that they have been given by a political campaign purely because of they way they voted.

Many of us were completely surrounded by people who voted the same way as us. Maybe this is a bit of a wake up call to diversify our social networks a bit (the ones were we see people face to face, not just online)? I don’t want to shout into an echo chamber – I have limited energy and I don’t like the idea of expending it by preaching to the converted! If we’re not getting out of our social and cultural circles of comfort I also reckon we will find it harder to understand or tolerate another point of view, struggle to grow and mature in own opinions (as we will never experience any real challenge), be vulnerable to fear mongering political campaigns and play into the hands of those who would want to divide us as a society even further.

I’m with Jo Cox on this one. We have more in common than that which divides us. I want social progress and social change – but if that’s going to happen, how we relate to each other is the first place to start. And it needs to start with me. I need to start the face to face conversations before heading out onto social media. I need to begin to really listen before pushing for my voice to be heard. I don’t like the person that politics can turn me into – I’m a person of faith so I want to be known by the characteristics of the God whom I worship…which means compassion, kindness, gentleness, love. If I’m pursuing Jesus then these things will begin to emerge – leaving no room for fear, judgement, pride – and making me less vulnerable to manipulation by political campaigns. Given my previous reactions to the election results ( I remember keenly the bile I spewed after the Tories won the 2015 election) I’ve clearly got a long way to go…

 

As a postscript…

If you know me personally I know the real question you want to ask me is which was did I vote in the referendum! All things considered, I voted to Leave as I had serious concerns about the lack of democracy and disconnection from working class people in EU countries and the way this democratic deficit was being instrumentalised by right wing parties to whip up an anti-immigration agenda. I was also concerned about the lack of meaningful reform over the past two decades – especially the Common Agricultural Policy which I feel is grossly unfair towards poor farmers in developing countries and an unnecessary drain on EU member finances. I studied the EU institutions for my politics A level and apart from the European Court of Human Rights, do not think they justify the investment. I love Europe and Europeans – just not the institutions in place and how they work. I think we can do better and the more local, and closer to the people it is, the stronger it will be. I know there are lots of other valid and strong arguments and I do respect them – but this one was the one that swung it for me in what was the hardest vote to decide on that I’ve ever cast.

Here’s some articles and videos which I’ve found illuminating in the analysis post referendum in relation to the working class vote, particularly that from the north of england (as that’s where I live). This is an article from a Brexit voter on the divisions within the country; this article talks about the impact of inequality on the vote and this piece has some good points about the lack of representation for the working classes in Westminster.

And this is quite frankly hilarious delivery from Jonathan Pie in his assessment of the role of the Tories in all this…!

I have also found these articles on responding the vote by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and on having a civil dialogue (by Donald Miller) useful when thinking about how to respond to all of this.

A couple of weeks ago the U.S. Supreme Court passed a ruling which means that people of the same sex can get married.

After the ruling, very polarised opinions exploded on social media, particularly amongst Christians. Being a Christian myself I had a lot of this traffic coming through my newsfeed, and I watched with a good deal of sadness, not just at the things said from both sides of the debate, but the spirit in which they were said.

I’ve refrained from commenting or participating in the Facebook debate on gay marriage, mainly because from personal experience, face to face discussions on this kind of issue are better than a comment on a status update. (So please if you want to have a discussion about this blog post or critique it, call me or come round for a cuppa:)

I do feel the need to get what I’ve been thinking about all this out of my head and onto paper though. I rarely blog but when I feel the urge to its generally because I feel quite strongly about something and writing about it helps to process. I prayed last night about what I should say here – so hopefully my words will be guided by the Spirit – forgive any content which strays from that…

(Disclaimer – this blog will probably make the most sense if you are from a Christian or church background. If you’re not then I’d just encourage you to not write off Jesus because of the flaws in our humanity that this debate has exposed!)

One thing that has struck me about the social media based debate amongst Christians on gay marriage is that we are very quick to make assumptions about each other, and they don’t tend to be good ones. There have been accusations of Christians betraying other Christians and basing their views on a Facebook trend (see this article – the author lists 40 questions but they read more like 40 accusations). There have also been accusations of homophobia and closed mindedness flying thick and thin.

My real concern is that the Church will rip itself in two over this issue. We cannot keep assuming the worst of each other and be driven by judgement and prejudice. I have amazing Christian friends who support gay marriage. I have amazing Christian friends who don’t agree with it. The fact is there are very strong Biblical arguments both for and against same sex marriages. It’s nowhere near as clear cut as for example when God says of Jesus “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him.” I totally understand why people have come to their conclusions on both sides of the gay marriage argument – I think the key question is how do we respond to this reality of people studying the Bible, praying, researching, discussing an issue and coming to different conclusions? Do we move forward in love and respect, unified by our desire to follow and share Jesus? Do we listen to the opinions of others with an open mind? Or do we hammer people to try and bring them around to our point of view?

I don’t think I ever believed same sex relationships were wrong – but it took years of praying, studying the Bible, reading books on the issue, talking to people, getting to know LGBT people, realising how deeply isolated my LGBT friends felt and their fear of judgement from Christians to properly articulate and understand my beliefs. I was raised in conservative evangelical churches so I never met any other Christians who shared those beliefs until my twenties. Holding them was counter cultural in a way – which is quite a tough place to be at times.

I have refrained from being overt about where I stand in the past, partly because I was still figuring out what I believed and partly because I was afraid of being condemned by other Christians. But I’ve realised that in some ways I was pre judging my Christian friends as being judgemental without even giving them a chance – the irony! I was making a negative assumption rather than assuming they would respond in love. As I have discussed this issue with friends who are more traditional in their beliefs, we have shared our views, mostly agreed to disagree – but our love for each other, our mutual respect and our joint desire to serve and share Jesus remains. At times we probably hurt each other and frustrated each other – but the relationship remains. Our beliefs may evolve and change over time – perhaps we will hold different positions in 10 years time – but my hopes are that we can go through that process together, encouraging each other towards God.

I think that’s the crucial thing really – love and relationship. A question I might pose to you is, do you have any strong relationships with people who believe different things to you? Can you work through those differences and retain your love and respect for each other? Can you still encourage each other in your faith?

I think it is so important to have open conversations about these issues – especially people within evangelical churches – for two reasons.

Firstly, there will be many young LGBT people who will feel like they have no one to talk to about the different questions they have. The kids at Soul Survivor, The Keswick Convention, Word Alive…Their sexuality won’t feel like a “preference” to them but as they have only ever heard one view on the topic they won’t be able to weigh up whether they believe it’s right to pursue same sex relationships or not. They’re not going to be able to work through these issues in their teens and figure out who they are and what the right thing is to do. If we are to weigh anything we need at least one alternative view to make that decision. Having conversations about these issues need to be the norm – where different views are expressed and people can talk, pray and work things through. (That’s the difference between a conversation and taking a “my way or the high way” attitude). Young people in evangelical churches can end up feeling very isolated, conflicted and sadly, very desperate at times. I’m guessing this issue is seen as such a hot potato it’s either never talked about, or its dismissed very quickly as being a black and white issue (with that black and white being that same sex relationships are just plain wrong). The results can be seen in the tragic suicide of Lizzie Lowe (her church’s very thoughtful response is here) and in people like Vicky Beeching’s experience up until she came out last year. Some people have died because of this issue (although if we took the conversation to what’s happening in Uganda and other parts of Sub Saharan Africa you would have to replace “some” with “lots” and include all other sorts of persecution…). Surely the least we can do is have a conversation about it?

Secondly, I think it’s important to have open, loving conversations about these things as if we don’t, people will stew on the issue and it will dominate their concerns – more than a desire to follow and become more like Jesus. We are complex beings – sexual identity is a part of who we are – but it’s not the only thing that defines us. By suppressing or not encouraging conversation and through oppression, things can become a lot bigger than they really should be. Being straight is part of who I am – but it’s not something I think about all the time if I’m being honest. I hope to be primarily defined by my faith in God …and leading from that, the way I behave towards others, my daily choices, the things I say…and other things. But one reason behind this is probably because it hasn’t been taboo for me to talk about my attraction to men and be in relationships with men – if it had been condemned maybe my sexuality would been more of an issue for me.

I think that’s probably enough for now. I haven’t even started on what’s happening to LGBT people in places like Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Uganda… But that’s a conversation for a different time I think.  If I want to put across anything with this it would be to love, talk (to people’s faces), work through differences, ask God what he thinks and be prepared to accept that you’re not going to agree on everything. And that’s ok…

To all my LGBT friends out there – the ones who are out and the ones who are not. The ones who have accepted themselves and the ones who have not. I love you. God loves you. Seek first his kingdom….

Some of the more thoughtful and loving pieces that I have read on this issue are below…

Premier Christianity – Is the Church failing gay Christians?

Response of Christian leaders in Sojourners

Advice for US church leaders from a Canadian pastor

Traditional sexuality, radical community

A man sits in a courtroom on the witness stand. On trial, sitting metres away, is Adolf Eichmann, a senior SS office responsible for organising the mass deportation and extermination of Jews in what became known as the “the Final Solution” in World War II. The man, a witness by the name of Michael Podchlebnik, one of only two survivors of the Chelmo death camp, explains in a very matter of fact way how during the course of his job unloading bodies from “gas trucks” he came across the remains of his wife and two children. Desolate, he lay down next to his wife and pleaded to be shot. He was told he would not be shot yet – but would have to continue working as he was still strong enough to carry bodies.

Eichmann sits listening to Michael Podchlebnik and 111 other eye witnesses who tell stories of such unbelievable horror that you couldn’t believe they were possible; watching footage of mountains of skeleton corpses being buried by liberating forces he is completely impassive.

Eichmann went to his grave without showing any remorse. He was quoted at the end of the war as saying, “I will leap into my grave laughing because of the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction.”

We feel horror at his utter contempt for his victims. We feel a sense of disbelief that one human could orchestrate such excruciating cruelty on millions of individuals and feel a sense of satisfaction at his actions. Yet his lack of remorse and impassivity in some strange way gives us comfort as we tell ourselves he is nothing like us.

At the close of the trial the following statement was made, “For each of us who has ever felt that God created us better than any other human being has stood on the threshold where Eichmann once stood. And each of us who allowed the shape of another person’s nose or the colour of their skin, or the manner in which they worship their God to poison our feeling toward them, have known the loss of reason that led Eichmann to his madness. For this is how it all began for those who did these things.”

I find that idea of a threshold challenging. It seems to me that one of the things that drive people towards or over that threshold is pride. Pride emerges as we make the perception we have of ourselves the yardstick by which we form our opinions of other people. Feeling superior and having the need to receive appreciation and acknowledgement of our superiority, we compare ourselves with others and find them wanting. It is so ugly. I heard pride recently described as the “carbon monoxide of sin;” that is to say, it’s something which seeps into our character and thought patterns without us even realising. Which makes me think – Eichmann probably didn’t start off as any different to anyone else. He wasn’t born with a virulent hatred of Jewish people – the carbon monoxide of pride in who he felt he was must have poisoned his mind gradually over time, poisoned his feelings towards a whole race of people.

Last year the UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, stated that “any normal and fair-minded person would have a perfect right to be concerned if a group of Jewish people suddenly moved in next door.” Spot the deliberate typo – it’s Romanians not Jews that make Mr Farage feel concerned. Are you just the slightest bit uncomfortable about that statement? The reason you feel uncomfortable is likely because you know what happened in history when those kinds of sentiments were played on by the Nazis.

I’m not calling Mr Farage a Nazi. Or any UKIP supporter. But I do believe that Mr Farage, by saying those things is not just standing at the threshold where Eichmann began – but is peering over the doorway and into the house. He hasn’t gone racing in and set up home as we see IS doing in Syria and Iraq, but he is still saying that his concerns about living next door to a person are based on their ethnicity – not on their actions. Whilst I completely support anybody’s right to be concerned about being part of the European Union from a political and economic perspective, I think we’ve got to be careful that politicians aren’t just using those concerns as a fig leaf for an inherent belief that being British makes us superior to other races. We want to be getting as far away from that threshold as possible – not pushing toes across it.

We need to be vigilant, aware that our pride will always make us vulnerable to crossing the threshold – not just with other races but anybody who is different to us, who has a different way of thinking or doing life.

In a few weeks time I shall be hitting a rather significant milestone. Yes – I will be celebrating my 21st birthday for the second time – or as some people will insist on describing it, my 30th.

In the final year of my 20s, I have experienced a couple of significant events – the loss of a loved one, severe illness of a friend, two house moves, a change in city and a change in job.

As such, I have been reflecting on how life, and more pertinently, relationships and friendships are different as I approach my second 21st birthday, as opposed to when I approached my first. So this is a blog about friendship and your thirties, if you will.

There’s a couple of things I’ve noticed about friendships as you get older. (Disclaimer – I am a woman, single, no kids, White British – and a Christian – so if you are none of these things, quite potentially a lot of these things won’t apply to you!)

Making new friends seems to be more attractive to the young

When we are in our early 20s we are still figuring out who we are and our place in the world. On a very practical level, if you are less than 25 years old, then you have only lived a few years of adulthood.  Unless your parents moved in lots of different social circles or travelled a lot with you as a child, you just won’t have had the opportunity to meet as many different types of people as you will have done by the time you reach 40.

So in our early and mid twenties, we are less quick to make our minds up about people and more curious to meet new people – as new people bring with them possibilities and experiences that we’ve never come across before. I remember going to many a house party at university with stoned Scandanvian guys philosophising about alternative lifestyles at 1am in the morning – and actually listening to what they had to say. Those were good times – spent having trolley races through town, smashing the piñata with a rolling pin and my living room morphing into a club dance floor (shout out to the IDD class!)

As we get older though we move from self discovery to self knowledge – so in blunt terms, we become pickier about whom we choose to spend time with once we are surer of our values and what we like and dislike. Also, on a practical level, most of us have jobs to go to in the morning – so listening to Scandanavian guy’s weed fuelled philosophising becomes less appealing when you know your alarm is going off in less than 6 hours time!

Proximity, unplanned interaction and letting your guard down are key

Apparently there are three things which are crucial to making good friends – proximity, unplanned interactions and a setting which encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other. Being in school or college every day or being at university and living with housemates or dorm-mates are pretty conducive conditions for these three things – which would explain why most people’s strongest friendships are with people they met when they were teenagers – or when they were in their early 20s. Having recently moved cities, I know that the first two conditions in particular are really important – generally through my own crappness at keeping in touch with friends I now only see every couple of months!

I tend to think though that the way that the way society is set up in the Western world is not really facilitative of these three conditions. In the Western world, people who are single often choose to live alone as they get into their late 20s, very few people just “drop-in” to see a friend unannounced – usually you have to schedule a couple of days in advance – or we feel like we have to schedule a couple of days in advance so we just don’t bring ourselves to do it out of fear of imposing. We even have to schedule when we’re going to talk to people on the phone.

I recently met somebody who bucks that trend – suggesting going to gigs two hours before they start, texting photos of the outrageous numbers of cups in her new house (just for the hell of it) but also being open and vulnerable about the shit that’s going on in her life. But I tend to find she’s the exception, rather than the rule. (Although perhaps in many ways these are very middle class problems – I’ve recently moved to a working class area and have two brothers and their families as neighbours – and people seem to talk to their neighbours a lot more than the polite nods I would get in more middle class areas. Agree? Disagree?)

Making new friends becomes harder as you get older

A couple of years ago I again moved to a new city (not the current one) and started work within a large company. I only knew one person in the area – so I was pretty much starting from scratch. In the course of my work, I met a lady who I got on really well with – so I asked if she wanted to meet for lunch one day. She turned up to my desk – complete with pen and notepad. I’m not sure who was more embarrassed, her or I, when I explained that the lunch was purely social and I wasn’t really intending on talking about work!

As people get older, unless they are put in a situation where they HAVE to reach out to people otherwise they’ll be completely socially isolated, most people quite simply don’t bother. If you already have a set of friends – and you have moved beyond the self-discovery stage, and now have the added responsibility of a career and financial responsibilities to think about – why would you?

Making new friends with members of the opposite sex as you get older becomes nigh on impossible!

This is a tricky field to navigate. I have a really good male friend who I can talk to for hours and whom I’ve been on holiday with. But I’ve known him since I was 22.  And his fioncee has known me for ages too. As I’ve gotten older, it would appear that if you try to make friends with single men, they either think you are hitting on them – or you are actually hitting on them!

Neither of these conditions is conducive to forming a healthy friendship! It’s almost as if you need to have a disclaimer conversation – something along the lines of “it would be really good to get to know you better – but I don’t want to date you!

Or, “I would like to go on a date with you, but I can see you don’t want to go on a date with me – however, I would still like to be your friend because I’m sure I’ll get over the fact that you don’t want to go on a date with me fairly quickly and I value the prospect of having you as a friend more than the clinging to the vain hope of having you as a boyfriend!”

In practice you’ll be relieved to hear I don’t lead conversations with these disclaimers ( I do have some level of social awareness…) But often I wish I could as I think it’s really important to have friends who are men. They bring a different perspective, they are often less emotionally intense (generalisation I know but I found it to be true in my own experience) and if I’m going to be completely superficial they like things that a lot of girls don’t like but I do – like good action films (I discovered ‘The Raid” after being forced to watch it by three men) and watching football!


 

I read a couple of articles on this topic and I found some of their conclusions to be pretty depressing. One article about making friends in a new city advised me to search for friends who meet specific needs and to establish guidelines so that if somebody doesn’t look like a good friendship prospect, to not waste my time! (I think the most vomit wrenching line had to be the final one which said “Don’t be hard on yourself. Give it time. You know you’re an awesome person. Eventually, your new friends will know that too.”

Needless to say, I won’t be following this sage advice – however, I’m sure there are some conclusions that can be drawn as I look forward to the next 30 years of meeting new people. There are some obvious conclusions – one being to move countries – to move outside West Europe.  I have a friend who spent quite a bit of time in South America recently and observed that the way people live in rural Argentina, is very different to the individualistic way of life in Western Europe. Life is simpler, people are less bothered about material stuff and have more of a connection to the land they live off – the way of life is naturally more communal, is configured in a way which makes many of the above problems irrelevant. Moving is quite tempting – having lived in Kenya for a few years, I know that there are very different ways of living to the way things are set up in England. And maybe that will happen one day. But for now, I’m here – and need to make sense of what is around me.

So, firstly, my early and mid-20s and even late twenties were fantastic – but I don’t want to relive them. I’m not the same person that I was at 22 (which in many ways is a good thing) and I don’t think racing around the city centre in a shopping trolley is my idea of fun anymore. Much as I loved it at the time.

Secondly, although I’ve become more discerning about my own values and what I believe, I need to always seek out people who would challenge me and provoke me to think more deeply about those values and beliefs. As a Christian, it’s really important for me to be able to work through questions and experiences around faith, God and Jesus with people who share the same passion – I feel like I’m stagnating when I don’t do this. But it’s also good to connect with people who see things differently, both Christians and people outside the faith – so that I can wrestle with these questions of life, wrestle with them – and hopefully add something to each others’ lives. It’s important to make time to listen to different voices – older people, people from different countries and religions, people who lead different lives to me – and have a different way of thinking and personality to me.

Thirdly, I need to stop feeling the need to conform to the individualistic hegemony of middle-class Britain. Most people actually quite like it when you drop in unexpectedly or send them random text messages – if they’re busy or not in the mood to socialise and you have a modicum of social understanding, you’ll soon find out!

Fourthly, I need to beware of the consumerist attitude towards relationships that seems to permeate western society today. Relationships are all about what you can get out of the other person, how you can satisfy your needs, your desires. It is so easy to slip into that mentality – especially if you are feeling lonely. But it’s so dangerous as you end up with expectations of people that they can never fulfil. It’s also not the way that Jesus treats me in the relationship that I have with him – he wants to know me and loves me, even though I frequently ignore him, don’t involve him in decisions, try to get him to fit into my idea of what he should be and do things that hurt him. The relationship that God has with me is based on a promise that he will love me, regardless of anything that I do. And that love is extremely costly for him because ultimately it required a sacrifice, found on a cross. If I’m not going to subscribe to that consumerist rhetoric when it comes to friendships, I need to go into them with an attitude of sacrifice, service and unconditional love – relying on God to supply the energy for that.

 

Last year I posted links to artists that I thought I’d be listening to a lot more in 2013. Continuing the trend and to again remind myself of the decent stuff out there…here’s 2014’s version…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PXZG3vBG8OE

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEj8bBHq4s4

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IoIaOKg4Otw

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lv679SxziHQ

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7qYSIw_x8Mk

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RteQ47_z7K0

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=naMvm2DUKiE

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1LhOdbQnYyQ

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x28ueB6_TQM

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y3A8r7KmlmU

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AD3FQ6_eEWE

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPwArl5M9fw

https://soundcloud.com/beauxofficial/beaux-petticoats-and-pistols

https://soundcloud.com/rosielowe

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OmfM-q67z1E

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mfkcvjeGkU8#t=91

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BmQbC5TYFM4

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G3IMPYJ7MiY

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2G29lvYkSjY

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2G29lvYkSjY

 

On the rare occasions that I blog, it tends to be provoked by either something going on in the world, or a song. I’m pretty sure that music touches an area of my brain that nothing else is able to get to.

There is a song called ” A Reason to Sing” by the band, All Sons and Daughters, which is all about experiencing loneliness, what would appear to be depression and a sense that God is absent. 

Over the past year, I’ve been struck by just how many people have been struggling with depression, anxiety and poor mental health in general.  There have been eight people within my social circle who have taken or are currently taking medication and receiving counselling for one or a combination of the above.

I’m not a stranger to struggles with mental health myself – in the past I have suffered from depression.  There were a whole range of things that it did to me which I really resented – the emotional instability, the physical tiredness…  and the feeling of weakness. For myself, I struggled with admitting that I was in such a dark place. There is a history of depression in my family – I found it difficult growing up around it, so when I saw it in myself, I was mortified.   I feared other people’s judgement – as I myself had judged those I knew with depression.  Once I was told by a friend, “I thought you were fixed” – I could see the disappointment in her eyes – it mirrored the disappointment I had in myself for not being stronger. But it also amplified the feeling of chronic loneliness which I think is one of the worst parts of depression.

I think I would put loneliness up there as part and parcel  of the struggles with mental health. I have a number of friends who have experienced a sense of God’s absence –  the pain on their faces is perhaps some of the worst pain I’ve seen from a depressed person, as they are experiencing loneliness on a whole different level.

Feeling the absence of God is not something which many people talk about openly as far as I’m aware. I remember reading an issue of Time magazine which had extracts from Mother Teresa’s letters to a friend where she poured out her pain at God’s apparent silence.

Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.

— Mother Teresa to the Rev. Michael Van Der Peet, September 1979

At the time I was flabbergasted – this was an amazing woman of God, who had dedicated her life to following Jesus through serving the poor. She is probably one of the most famous Christians who has ever lived. Yet it was clear that she went through periods of great spiritual depression – great loneliness.

I thought about it though and realised somebody more famous within Christianity experienced the same feeling –  when Jesus was being crucified, he cried out “my God, my God why have you forsaken me?”  Until that point, Jesus‘ trial and execution had been marked by his silence – or very few, carefully chosen words on his behalf. But at this point – Jesus becomes very emotional and calls out in pain. The loneliness of not experiencing God’s presence was another painful cross for him to bear.

Of course, in hindsight we look back and know that God had not forsaken Jesus – but in that moment, he felt completely shattered.

The song which I started with, has the lyrics:

When the pieces seem to shatter

To gather off the floor

And all that seems to matter

Is that I don’t feel you anymore

No I don’t feel you anymore

I need a reason to sing

I need to know that You’re still holding

The whole world in Your hands

I need a reason to sing

When I’m overcome by fear

And I hate everything I know

If this waiting lasts forever

I’m afraid I might let go

Will there be a victory?

Will You sing it over me now?

Your peace is the melody

You sing it over me now

Oh Lord

I don’t feel like this song really has a resolution – which is probably best as I don’t think there is a simplistic answer to the experience of spiritual loneliness and depression. But there is another song by the same band which starts with the lyrics:

Lord I find you in the seeking

Lord I find you in the doubt

And to know you is to love you

And to know so little else

Oh how I need you

In the midst of depression, whether it be mental, emotional, spiritual or a combination  – it is hard to see things through a different framework other than our own experience. I guess that’s what mental health struggles create though – a broken framework, a tinted window as it were. But in seeking God, in the straining to see through that tinted window – God can and does break through.

Another verse says:

Light, glorious light
I will go where You shine
Break the dawn, crack the skies
Make the wave right before me
In Your light I will find
All I need, all I need is You

I don’t want to pick out random verses…I don’t want to be trite…but stepping back and looking at history as a whole, God has shown himself to be faithful – and incredibly patient – with Joseph, Moses, the Israelites, Peter…the list goes on.  I believe that didn’t stop with Mother Teresa – and it didn’t stop with Jesus – and I believe it will not stop with us.  God has demonstrated seemingly endless amounts of compassion with humankind – and his compassion extends to those of us being plagued by our own minds…with the church having the potential to be the embodiment of that unconditional love and support. But Christ also has a different perspective to that of our own, a different framework on life – he’s God so we can never fully get our heads around it. But in the straining, in the seeking – I believe the light starts to break through.

Image

A good friendship is like a fantastic piece of cake – soft, rich moist sponge coated with creamy, sweet icing. The problem is – most of us go through life filling ourselves up on EITHER sponge OR icing when it comes to friendships. Icing is OK by itself – but in small amounts. Ever tried to eat whole bowl of butter icing? You’d feel pretty sick and your teeth would be pretty much screaming at the abuse they’d been given. Icing tastes best when it’s eaten as it should be – as part of the whole cake. Similarly a sponge tastes a bit bland without a filling – it’s remarkably enhanced by icing or some jam in the middle.

What am I rattling on about you’re probably wondering? Well with most friendships you’ll have icing – by which I mean the kinds of conversations where you talk about that project you’ve been working on for a while at work, your prospects of promotion, that funny thing your boss said when you were leaving the office last night, your latest holiday, the car you’re hoping to buy next or the progress of your DIY. You might bemoan the fact that Leah was robbed in the Voice, debate whether Edward Snowden was right to put the US government’s dirty washing out to dry and criticise the Church of England General Synod for writing off women’s chances of becoming Bishops. You could go to the cinema, out for a meal, shopping, to the pub, to the cricket, to a museum, to a barbecue….

Christians are pretty good at icing. We talk about how many people came to church on a Sunday, about how terribly Christians are portrayed in the press, about how this church is getting it wrong because of X and this other church is getting it right because of Y. We attend meetings, we put a lot of effort into presentation, we talk theology.

I love a bit of icing. I’m looking forward to singing myself hoarse at VFestival when Beyonce comes on stage and shaking some questionable dance moves!  My sisters and I do a pretty good job of putting the world to rights – we’re all fairly politically charged and have our own opinions on the way public sector cuts are effecting the disabled and the vulnerable -and we like to voice them;)  Cooking a good meal and experimenting on people with new recipes is sweet icing indeed.

But the thing that makes the icing sweet and not sickly – is the sponge it comes with. I was hanging out with some of my Christian community recently and we were chatting about what we look for in community. The Bible is pretty helpful on this – it says to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. We are to bear with each other and forgive one another if any of us has a grievance against someone. We’re to forgive as the Lord forgave us. And over all these virtues we’re to put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity (Colossians 3). There’s your sponge right there! All these things create trust, mutual respect, value and love.

Sponge is receiving a card from a friend thanking you for being their friend and telling you they value you. Sponge is going round to a friend’s house and scrubbing their kitchen floor and cleaning their toilet when they’re feeling under the weather – even after you’ve worked a full day’s shift. Sponge is reaching out when you’re experiencing a miscarriage and praying it through with those around you. Sponge is telling someone who’s hurt you that you forgive them and meaning it. Sponge is telling someone who’ve hurt that you’re sorry and meaning it. Sponge is celebrating a spiritual breakthrough with someone. Sponge is confessing when you’ve screwed up, being honest about your temptations and struggles – and asking for support in fighting them. Sponge is leaving an important work event to race across the city to pick a friend up from the station and take them home to save them waiting for a connection.

Once you have that sponge, the icing just tastes better. How much better is it having dinner with people who know you love, value, trust and respect you than it is with a bunch of people who have no idea what is really going on with you?

The thing is, icing tends to happen without much effort. If you want to make a sponge, often, you’ll have to do consciously work at it. The main thing it requires is time –  making yourself available says to another person that they are of value to you.  Never having the time to meet up, always being too busy to talk  – this tells another person that they are low in your list of priorities.  It also requires the “one anothers” from Colossians – bearing with each other, forgiving one another, having compassion, kindness, gentleness and patience with one another.  When you get dressed in the morning, it’s an intentional thing – it’s an active thing. You don’t just go from being naked to being fully dressed without determining to do something – and then doing it.  I think the same applies with clothing yourself in all these things –  although, as a Christian, I know that it is God who gives me the strength to do these things – I have to be purposeful and make a decision that I will choose to be this way.   That I will make time to visit someone, to meet someone for coffee, to allow people to mess up my schedule and inconvenience me. And I have to choose to be vulnerable  – to allow others to demonstrate compassion, kindness, gentleness and patience with me. To have the humility to accept discipline, advice and wisdom from the people around me.

I think if a relationship is to be a “cake relationship” it need to have the right balance of sponge and icing. If all you have with the relationship is a series of intense conversations and experiences – that would just be too much.  I used to get the balance way out with that and it turns the pressure up in a relationship to a point whereby you get a small explosion at some point down the line! Too much sponge can be equally as sickening as too much icing! I know it’s not possible (or advisable!) to have a lot of depth with everyone I meet  – but in the future I want my existing and any new relationships to be full of cake! Over the last year I’ve made two new friends – they’re my cake friends – they have the goods on me – and I know them pretty well too. My family is getting bigger  and the cake tastes goooooooooooooooooooood!

This post is mostly to act as a reminder of the golden nuggets I stumble across when I actually spend some time looking for decent stuff…here’s some gooooooooooooood music for 2013. A work in progress….

Facebook, Twitter and social networking have been at the receiving end of a bit of a backlash recently. Social networking sites have been accused of accentuating feelings of loneliness, encouraging narcissism and discouraging the development of normal social skills.  Former enthusiasts such as Sherry Turkle, have turned against the tide, voicing their caution as can be seen in her talk, Connected but alone?

I’ve been particularly interested in the commentary going on as I very much had a love affair with online social networking over the years – up until recently when I realized that not only was I getting annoyed with myself for spending so much time on Facebook and Twitter, but I was also feeling less happy after a “session” than before.

One of the blogs I have read over the past few weeks has been the “Will you be my Facebook friend ” series by the Christian author, Tim Chester. Chester acknowledges Facebook’s benefits and admits he is focusing on its dangers partly because he is “a grumpy old man” but also because he believes those dangers are very subtle and need to be brought out into the open. Some of the main points that he covers are the fact that Facebook is a massive consumer of our time – apparently 700 billion minutes per month spent on Facebook! If like me, discipline and self control are not your forte – your time can disappear down a social networking black hole! He also points out that Facebook enables us to recreate our image using words and pictures. I personally don’t think this is a subtle danger – I think that it’s a fairly obvious temptation to Facebook users for them to project an image of themselves that they would like to be perceived as truly being – rather than who they are in reality. This isn’t anything new – it’s part and parcel of online dating as well.

One particularly interesting thing that Chester  highlighted though was that Facebook is geared to project positivity – there is no dislike option on Facebook! I have to say I find it fairly depressing to be bombarded with all these positive projections of people when I log into Facebook – one researcher gives the following amusing summation “When I scroll through page after page of my friends’ descriptions of how accidentally eloquent their kids are, and how their husbands are endearingly bumbling, and how they’re all about to eat a home-cooked meal prepared with fresh local organic produce bought at the farmers’ market and then go for a jog and maybe check in at the office because they’re so busy getting ready to hop on a plane for a week of luxury dogsledding in Lapland, I do grow slightly more miserable. A lot of other people doing the same thing feel a little bit worse, too.

Projecting a positive image for most people will also mean posting photos showing themselves with lots of friends, having a good time. It is as if we’re saying – “I have a good life and am popular and here is photographic evidence!” It is not that there is anything wrong with showing photos to other people  – but the way Facebook works, or at least the way it works now, means that every photo you post, whether it be of your wedding or of a dinner party – all your Facebook friends witness this in their “news stream.” Unless you manually go through each of your “friends” and choose those who you wish to “unsubscribe” to you are given a running commentary of other people’s Facebook lives – and they are given a running commentary of yours (note I say Facebook life – because it isn’t real life!). I realised recently that I really don’t want to see every single photo of all my facebook friends’ social lives – weddings, babies – yes these are significant things – but photos of me dancing badly at a gig last Saturday – I don’t think so.  In a life before Facebook, it would be rather strange if every time I met somebody who I knew I took out my phone and showed them photos of my sisters birthday party from last weekend. But now doing the online equivalent has become the norm.

Another danger Chester draws out is that Facebook becomes a place where we find affirmation and approval. As I read the blog it very much resonated with my own experience as I realised the way I had been using Facebook had accentuated the very sides of my character that I had identified as needing work on. I tend to struggle with the need to feel accepted and valued by my friends. Using Facebook was like pouring oil on a fire! For example, if I were to post “I’ve had a really awful day at work and feel miserable” and no one were to comment on it – chances are I would have felt even more miserable – and very alone.

Loneliness is a problem in our supposedly connected Western world (although according to these articles from Forbes and Slate  the problem has been over exaggerated) with many people feeling much more “alone” than perhaps previous generations. (I don’t want to go into an analysis of loneliness – apart from highlighting two definitions that I’ve come across which definitely give food for thought. The first being that loneliness is a lack of confidants – people to share personal things with and the second being that loneliness is being in a situation where you don’t have the level of social connection that you desire/need (a level which tends to differ from person to person).) I would argue though in line with the Atlantic article that Facebook tends to accentuate loneliness rather than causing it. I have had seasons of my life where I have been extremely lonely and where using Facebook has made me miserable! But there have been seasons where I’ve not really experienced loneliness and Facebook has been a much more positive experience. Generally though, I think that lonely people are more vulnerable to feeling more alone if they are using Facebook and Twitter a great deal . The number of comments, re-tweets or “likes” are the things which can make people feel less alone or more secure. That cannot be healthy.

One thing I find interesting about social networking is that people say things that if they were to have to speak them out loud, they would either not say or would find it very difficult to say. This could be both positive and negative things. For example, I once read a Facebook status which contained a stinging criticism of a Christian university society, a criticism which I followed up with some concern to find out if it was merited. Once I realised there was very little justification for it, I challenged the person to speak face-to-face with the person who ran that university society to voice their complaints. They never did. Sadly, we also postings on Facebook such as “I love you“or “I miss you” or “I think you’re amazing” that when we are face-to-face with someone on the phone to someone – we just can’t say! It’s very bizarre – we’re willing to write these kinds of things on people’s Facebook walls, where hundreds of other people can read it – but when we are breathing the same airspace as someone and it’s just them and us in the room – we can’t say these things!

Social networking also means you can delete the record of things that you’ve said, articles that you’ve read and photos that you have uploaded. The author of this article talks about how he was watching Mad Men with a friend who posted a status update about how fat Betty Draper had become, only to rush to delete it when later on in the episode it turned out that she had a thyroid tumour! Most of us can get away with deleting things and not many other people knowing (unless you are a celebrity or prominent organisation – Starbucks had to recently apologise after inviting its Irish Twitter followers to “show us what makes you proud to be British” as part of a Diamond Jubilee promotion!), However this is not how real life works. If you something to somebody – you cannot “unsay it.” Even if you send an e-mail, you can’t recall it (actually this is probably possible although I still haven’t figured out how to make it work!) Words are powerful – the power to speak and communicate means that we also have a certain level of responsibility on how we speak and what we communicate – and we have to live with the consequences of that. If we can delete our Facebook posts or tweets – this removes that responsibility and enables us to avoid the consequences.

Finally, I would argue that one of the most inherent dangers of online social networking is that it can fuel an unhealthy level of self absorption. Over the past week, one of the people who I follow on Twitter posted this tweet “dinner was so nice tonight. Broccoli and meatballs.” How profound. Really essential information for myself and everybody else who follows her. How self absorbed have we become if we feel the need to tell everybody every intricate, inane happening in our lives?! Sharing our lives is important – I am a Christian, and therefore, a passionate believer in the importance of being part of a loving and open community, however, these kinds of trivial overshares really don’t seem to be things which will help either the person sharing all the people hearing. I feel crippled when I think about myself too much – there is a very real danger that social networking can be used in a way which fuels a focus which is always on me, on my activities, on my interactions with other people, on my likes, on my opinions. Me, me, me, me, me…..

After this tirade, I’m sure you’re wondering “why is this woman still using social networking?! (Especially as the likelihood is that you read this through a link on Facebook or Twitter!) You’re probably also thinking “what a hippo!” (A description that has been directed towards me before when I’ve been speaking in a fairly hypocritical way!) You could also argue that blogging is a fairly narcissistic thing to do – perhaps there is some truth in that, although there is always good and bad things about most things – even Facebook and Twitter which I have yet to come to! The thing is – I am guilty as charged of pretty much all of the things I have highlighted today. However, realising this has been the start of breaking free from it – and the joy of breaking free is something I would like to share!

There are healthy and productive ways of using online social networking – Facebook and Twitter have some fantastic tools and facets to them which we can take advantage of. Social networking is a great way of keeping in touch with people who live far away – people who you are unlikely to see in the short – medium-term. I have a friend from Kenya who is now in South Africa whom I haven’t seen since 2009. We have been fairly good at keeping in touch since 2009, however, since we both joined twitter we now have extremely regular contact – and have been able to add to that using other technologies such as whatsapp. This has definitely helped us to preserve our friendship. I also have two nieces and two nephews who I don’t get to see as often as I would like – seeing the photos that their parents post on Facebook brings me genuine joy and helps me to keep track of how they are growing.

Social networking is also useful for sharing articles and videos which you genuinely think the people you know might find interesting or helpful. I have a friend who is studying in the US who often posts articles which make me think – which I really appreciate. I have another friend who regularly blogs about her homeland,Nigeria– her blogs are probably the main reason why I actually have an idea of what is going on with Boko Haram and Nigerian politics, reducing my ignorance for which I am grateful! Social networking gives you a launchpad for ideas, for information – which is an extremely powerful and positive thing as it can bring about behavioural change.

Tim Chester has suggested a couple of guidelines for using Facebook. Personally I have found the following helpful:

  • uninstalling Facebook from my phone (twitter – you may be next, although the antics of @Queen_UK and the quotes coming out of @FinePickUpLines and @FirstWorldPains may cause me to hold back for now!)
  • Limit myself to checking once or twice a week, 15 min maximum at a time and never after 8 PM.
  • Only sharing photos with the people in those photos or people who I know for sure would want to see them.
  • Sharing articles and videos which I think other people might find beneficial or interesting to read without sharing absolutely every news article I read, every song that I listen to! And sharing these things without actually opening my Facebook page.
  • Using Facebook and Twitter to enhance an existing relationship – but only if it is well established, not if it is new or has problems.

All of these things have meant I have been given the gift of time! I’m able to clean my house, phone my sisters more, see friends in the flesh more, go to bed earlier – and research and write pieces like this! The last two friends I have made don’t actually use Facebook so I have been forced to text, e-mail, phone and arrange to meet up – and it’s been great!

So in conclusion – online social networking sites are not necessarily bad things. In fact they can be really great things. But the way they are designed can enable our weaknesses and mean we neglect the business of real relationships if we’re not careful. These are dangers worth recognising – and guarding against.