No to Notifications

Do you really want to be a slave of something which is supposed to be a tool for you to use? Notifications on your phone distract you from what’s happening in front of you (which might be important, or personal, or possibly really boring and therefore a chance to think), and they feed an unhealthy desire to seek attention from others.

Distraction isn’t a modern disease, John Donne confessed in 1640: “I neglect God and his angels for the noise of a fly, for the rattling of a coach, for the whining of a door.” And feeding off the attention of others isn’t new either. We’ve just got more technology that encourages both of them now, and that cannot possibly be a good thing.

More people are realising this, which is why I’ve got several good articles to recommend to convince you. Some friends of mine have got rid of their smartphones altogether in a commendable commitment to escaping from all of this. I like how smoothly my iPhone works, and its camera, and the convenience of internet access and GPS when I need it, so I didn’t go that far. I got rid of the Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Twitter and Flipboard apps altogether, hid Instagram away in a folder (because I can’t use it elsewhere), and have tried to keep my phone in my pocket more often. I’ve kept Pocket* so I can read articles that I’ve saved elsewhere, and Simplenote to process my thoughts in writing. Sometimes I get phone calls or texts. Hopefully I'll pick up books more often. I'm still very distractible but I think my ability to focus on the tasks and people in front of me is slowly improving, and that whatever it is that gives us a tremor of minor elation when we're notified about someone online paying us attention is getting the beating it deserves.

Here’s who helped me:

  • Matt Simmonds was the first person whose thoughts on this I read, as he got to work on removing habitual time-wasters from his life.
  • Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is blunt: “Literally no one is going to die if you wait five freaking minutes to check your text messages and your Twitter replies.”
  • Julian Baggini is concerned that the Apple Watch is the next stage in reducing our conception of ourselves to machines.
  • Andy Crouch writes wisely, beautifully and at length about a full-on fast from screens. “I was more free to pay attention to the world I am called to love.”

* I've written a list of four helpful productivity apps that aren't distracting.


This week: Bible contradictions, relationship wisdom, food packaging, sports commentating, volcano erupting

Deb didn't buy any of these shoes. Nor did I.

Does the Bible contradict itself? Preston Sprinkle makes a case for clarity and charity.

Russell Moore brings vital wisdom and perspective to the debate about religious freedom.

If you're in a relationship but not yet married, you should read the advice of Jared C. Wilson. (By the way, is it only Christian writers who involve their initials so much?)

Did the 1960s change the western world? David Brooks thinks the real shift happened twenty years earlier.

The stupid way that our food packaging tries to talk to us is given a blast of Steven Poole's righteous anger.

The late Richie Benaud had eight rules that shaped his sports commentary. Read them and weep for how ignored they are by almost everyone in the business he mastered.

Finally, this volcano erupting is all that an erupting volcano should be...

This week: identity, shepherds, rich people, reading music

Here's London looking moody and murky.

How does God see you if you are a Christian? Mark Galli illustrates this wonderful truth beautifully.

It's a brave man who suggests that the richest 1% are doing the rest of the country good, and Fraser Nelson is that man, armed with stats that say the wealthiest have never contributed more to the public purse.

The life of a Twenty-First Century shepherd is investigated by Caroline Crampton.

The value of reading things that seem to be irrelevant your interests or studies is praised by Wesley Hill.

I rather like Colours In The Dark by Tongues:

Crossway have redesigned their excellent Bible app, which now includes for free all the resources of the ESV Global Study Bible...

This week: lament, grief, pens, albums, rights wisdom

Yet another photo from Monday's beautiful day at the Botanics.

Western Christians often seem unprepared for suffering, so Derek Rishmawy welcomes the publication of Rejoicing In Lament by Todd Billings and gives some advice on how to get ready for it.

On a related theme, Mark Galli suggests what we can do with the grief we feel for all the evils happening in the world.

Doug Wilson meditates on how Jesus is both there and here, and how He gives the Christian life.

The difference between race rights and gay rights is considered by Ross Douthat.

The fountain pen I was bought for my 18th birthday is one of my favourite things; Stephen Robinson is more obsessed with his and heralds the return of these beautiful tools.

The future of music albums suddenly looks a lot brighter than it used to, argues Micah Singleton.

Here's some advice from three wise men on getting wisdom...

Beautiful Botanics


It being a warm and sunny day, an event never to be taken for granted round here, I decided to visit the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, initially to see a display of the International Garden Photographer of the Year finalists. It was the right choice, though having a sore neck and not bringing my new camera were two nagging sources of regret.

Many were making the most of a weather: a belated Easter egg hunt seemed to be in progress and I overheard an expectation-adjusting mother explaining to her charge that the eggs on offer were likely to be very small. "They might be massive" was the indefatigable reply.

The child seemed to be more in tune with God's attitude, given the abundance of creation on offer here. Flora was wonderfully represented but fauna made a couple of appearances too. A full-throated robin let me get very close, and a bumble bee took up residence on my jeans. Not quite knowing how to usher him on his way without distressing both of us, I eventually introduced him to my handkerchief. For once it was not very colourful, so with nothing on it worth his while, he flew off.

On and on the gardens went, and any reticence about taking photos with my phone (a discipline I sometimes practice) was soon discarded.

It was a beautiful day in a beautiful place.



This week: choose your policy, illiberal liberalism, confirming what you believe, VHS, flat-pack

We went to Melrose. Most of it was closed but the river was slick and lovely.

You may have noticed there's a lot of politics around at the moment. If you're curious about whose policies you support, rather than which party leader you dislike the least, Vote For Policies is a helpful tool.

When does liberalism become illiberal? Sometimes when Christianity is involved, suggests Tim Montgomerie (£).

Why do Christians value spontaneity above craftsmanship? asks Jonny Mellor.

The unnoticed power of confirmation bias and how it affects all of us is explored by George Yancey.

Amar Toor reports on how Ikea have put their flat-pack skills to brilliant use: creating safer refugee camps.

Less significant but also good skills: Julien Knez has made VHS covers for some of today's films and TV shows.

This is Easter weekend: the most important and hopeful event in history. Karsten Piper shares a great poem by Mary Karr about the resurrection and explains its power.

The key to it all, of course, is whether Jesus really did rise from the dead. Professor N.T. Wright's documentary for Channel 4 from 2004 gives a clear answer...

This week: collapsing middles, preaching and singing, simple judgements, world photos

I'm still going through the photos of our time in Paris - can you guess where I was when I took this one?

Andrew Marr describes why the centre has collapsed in British politics, and what the future may look like in consequence. In Scotland, Alex Massie reports on business as usual among nationalists.

Why do Christians preach and sing? John Piper explains.

Timothy Keller helps us see how what our culture thinks about relationships isn't what marriage really is.

The difference between what a piece of culture says and how it says it is explored by Ailssa Wilkinson - which enables her to show that God's Not Dead and Fifty Shades of Grey are essentially the same story. An important read for those of us who like to make simplistic judgements.

Talking of simplistic judgements, David Aaronovitch resists them and instead speaks sense about the Jeremy Clarkson thing.

Some of the photos shortlisted for the 2015 Sony World Photography Award are shared by Alice Yoo.


This week: reviving London, shampooing hair, teaching kids, avoiding burnout, burning matches

The weather in Edinburgh wasn't always this clear.

Don’t let anyone tell you Christianity is finished in the UK: Erasmus reports on what’s happening in London.

Shampooed hair can be made into great photos by Lo Cheuk Lun.

If you want to teach children the story of Christianity and not merely its morality, Ed Stetzer has some advice for you.

Adrian Wooldridge laments the influence of PPE degree courses in British politics.

How do you avoid burnout if you’re serving in a church, particularly as a leader? Paul Tripp gives eleven principles to keep you in the grace of God.

They’re sort of making a star in France: Alok Jha reports on the hope of future energy.

Talking of burnout and reactions, here’s my mate Dave Hill’s pyramid of matches...

A letter to our students with mid-term blues

I went to the Tollcross end of The Meadows knowing what I was going to see. Just as they do every year, crocuses have arrived and are bringing their colours to the drab greens, browns and greys of Edinburgh. It always happens, it always makes me hopeful: better weather is on its way.

There’s still a lot of winter still around though, isn’t there? The afternoons are less dark but your flats are still cold. This can be a tricky time. The excitement of Christmas has passed and the path to the warm delights of summer are taking you through the steep mountains of exams and assignments. You may also be experiencing tensions with the people you’re currently living with, or in your search for people to live with (and where you’ll live) next year. There are probably other things going on too that make this time of year feel like a dull, hard slog. It’s OK to feel this way, totally natural. I did. But don’t let this be the definitive word for you this term.

I’ve got great, if familiar, news for you: your strength is not enough, and it needn’t be the only strength you have. The Bible is full of people struggling and finding that God is willing and able to provide for their needs. Psalm 121 and Isaiah 40 are two places that tell us this; I’d encourage you to read them in full for yourself but here’s a summary of what they say:
“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:28-31)
God knows that you are weak, fragile, fatigued – He’s not surprised or disappointed by that, even if you are. He knew this would happen and He has what you need at this time. The quote above describes the solution as: “they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength.” How does this happen? God provides ways by which He supplies us with His strength. They are characterised here by the word “waiting” because they involve us relying on Him and not ourselves. I want to mention a few of them to you.

Spending time alone with God may be a struggle for some of you but I promise that this is a major way in which God does us good. Describing someone who studies God’s word diligently, Psalm 1 says: “He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.” The Bible gives strength to us like water does to a tree. It might not be very spectacular but it does happen. Alongside reading the Bible, praying gives God the chance to shape your thoughts, and allows you to take your worries and frustrations to Him. Repenting of the things you’ve done wrong releases the cleansing power of God’s forgiveness. In all this, God’s Holy Spirit is able to move in you and on you, bringing you His presence, peace, and power.

God also does us good through other people – and He wants to use you to do others good as well. Your church family is where encouragement and love and wisdom are shared, as well as lots of food! Our Sunday meetings and small groups are where we help each other receive God’s strength. Worship and teaching do this. Sharing communion reminds us of what Jesus has done for us, and the real hope we have. Chatting with people can bless us, and meeting with a friend or two from church to confess weakness and pray for strength will also do you good.

If you aren’t making time for these things, don’t be surprised if you’re feeling vulnerable – you are missing out on what God has designed to be life-giving for you. Allowing other stuff (accidentally or otherwise) to get in the way of receiving what God has provided for strengthening you is like someone who is starving failing to attend a feast that they’ve been invited to.

These things – Bible reading, prayer, repentance, community, worship, teaching, the Spirit’s power – are the supernatural provision of God for His children’s strength to be renewed. The results may be amazing (“mount up with wings like eagles”) or just enough to get you through another day (“walk and not faint”). However God does it, He will do it.

There is also natural wisdom which you shouldn’t ignore. Good sleep, healthy food, and a bit of exercise will do your body good, and this will impact how you feel. God designed us to need a day’s Sabbath rest every week so don’t think that you’re an exception to this. Some people get energised by being around others, others need quality time by themselves: work out which of these types you are and make time to recharge in the way you need. I think there’s a difference between amusement and refreshment – the internet has a lot of the first but we need more of the second. Find things that refresh you and do them.

With all this to help, you’re now able to get God’s perspective on some of the things you’re going through. Here are some very brief summaries...

It helps to remember that you’re not working for yourself, your tutors, your parents, or anyone’s expectations:
“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” (Colossians 3:23-24)
Learning how to get on with others is an important life skill, and flat-sharing is one of the ways we learn it:
“Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honourable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:16-18)
You will not stay faithful to God and to others unless you learn discipline. Nothing develops this like slogging through a hard time:
“More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)
This isn’t just about you. You have friends whose only hope currently is the coming summer – you have something much better than that. Ask God to use you to show them this:
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)
I hope that all of this will be helpful for you. I’m praying for you, confident that our loving Father will supply what you need. I know it feels hard right now but be encouraged: as the crocuses coming through the ground remind us, God is an expert at making life from mud.

Don't watch that, watch these

“Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labour, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”
(Ephesians 4:28-29)
Christians have a reputation for being against things. This is fair enough – the world is presently full of evil – but not far enough. As Paul told the Ephesians, ceasing from doing something wrong is only the beginning of the Christian journey. The thief not only stops robbing, he starts earning fairly – and this is so that he can give what he earns away, a complete transformation. Similarly, corrupting talk is not replaced with silence but with encouraging words.

As I read articles bemoaning Fifty Shades of Grey last week and pondered whether to write anything about it myself, one of things that stopped me was a nagging concern that my comments could only be negative. So let me instead suggest some good things to put before your eyes, rather than just advocating avoidance of the bad…

It’s already being marginalised in the cinemas but Selma is a good film telling a great story. Christians are likely to be astonished by how generously God is portrayed in it. Those who flocked to see “biblical” films such as Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings should pack out the theatres where Selma is being shown for it portrays the God of the Bible more accurately than either of those films. There has been much comment on the Academy’s decision not to nominate David Oyelowo for its Best Actor Oscar, but I suspect his subject would prefer to be in the Best Supporting Actor category. Although Martin Luther King’s character has greater depth than anyone else in the film, it is God who is repeatedly credited with leading the civil rights movement. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a film depict Christian faith so normally. There is no cynicism or mockery, and the faith of racists is not used as a counterpoint to undermine the significance of Christianity to the story, as it might easily have been. It is God’s Word which comforts King as he languishes in jail, it is God’s leading after prayer that causes him to make an unpopular decision which is ultimately vindicated, it is Christian ministers who fight fairly for justice (weak and sinful though they are), and it is God who is explicitly given the glory as the story concludes.

Faith is one of several volcanic undercurrents in Wolf Hall, the BBC’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novels about Henry VIII’s advisor Thomas Cromwell. I’ve been watching each episode twice: first for the story, second to appreciate the themes and details, both times for enjoyment. I haven’t loved a TV show this much since The West Wing. Life for Cromwell and almost everyone else here is lived on the edge of an axe blade, fraught and ever at risk from the hurricane of a king’s will. For a story so familiar and far away, Wolf Hall feels remarkably real. Scenes are set like Renaissance paintings (literally when we see Holbein making Cromwell’s portrait), and lit only by sunlight and candles, as they would have been. Mantel told the director to remember that no-one in it knows that they’re in history: they are people wearing clothes, not characters wearing costumes. Close-ups abound – we are with them. As in the novels, explanations are not always given and the action can feel disorienting. It takes its time. In other words, it’s like real life. All of this is excellent, but is eclipsed by Mark Rylance as Cromwell. He and Mantel have made their man a Machiavelli we might cheer for, jousting without a lance, on the rise but always at risk of being destroyed in a society that isn't yet our meritocracy but is slowly, grudgingly, moving that way. The best at living on that axe’s edge, he is a lawyer, a fighter, a Renaissance man, a believer, a pragmatist, an avenger, a servant, a master, an awkward father, a scarred son, a lover, a widow, a hunter, the prey, an ally, an enemy - often several of these at once. Rylance can show you which by the angle of an eyebrow, or an intake of breath. It’s an astonishing performance.

No doubt there are many other good things around to be received and appreciated but these are two that I am particularly grateful for.

This week: sunsets, ISIS, thinking slowly, more words for "tree", whose Premier League, dolls transformed

Edinburgh has been having some good sunsets recently.

Should Christians pray for the defeat of ISIS, or their salvation? Russell Moore says yes.

Social media makes many of us think that we need to have an instant opinion on everything. Alissa Wilkinson challenges us to take more time before we speak.

Lucy Purdy suggests that learning more words for "tree" could help us appreciate nature more.

The English Premier League isn't really England's any more, says Jonathan Freedland.

Finally, what if Bratz dolls got a make-under? The difference is remarkable...

This week: criticising, Crusades, creation, counter-culture

We flew into London City Airport, which was as spectacular as always.

Christians often talk about being "counter-cultural" and Matthew Lee Anderson isn't sure how helpful this is.

Justin Taylor uses the Bible itself to explain why the "days" in the Genesis account of creation might not be days.

The real story of the Crusades is told by Thomas F. Madden.

If you're going to criticise, do it well. Maria Popova shares Daniel Dennett's four tips for doing this.

English is full of idioms but it doesn't have a monopoly on them: Helene Batt and Kate Torgovnick May list some of the best from around the world

Finally, is true love just for a lucky few?


To wonder

We took off – which is a wonder itself, of course. However solid the physics may be, aviation should surely feel barely-credible. But it’s when you get up there that the magic really happens; or rather, can be perceived. It’s regular magic, as regular as the rising of the sun, which was occurring on my left hand side. Seated on the right of the plane, I stared out of the window like a child. I think this is the best way to fly. Fellow-passengers watched films on their phones or typed reports on their laptops; I saw the moon shine on the sea as the earliest rays of the sun brought colour to snow-covered hills. The grainy photo above does not do it justice. It was a scene that should astonish, and I let myself be astonished.

I love wonder: wide-eyed joy at the state of things. I have had many teachers. My parents are great celebrators, delighting in delighting. John Piper – following C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, George Müller, and the Westminster Confession – showed me in Desiring God that delighting in God was the greatest good: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” I didn't have to finish the book to get the point, and have lived happily with it for a decade or so. Before I go to sleep I usually write down the things that I'm thankful to God for from that day.

Wide-eyed joy doesn’t make us blind to suffering, unsympathetic or insensible to the shocking horrors and routine tragedies of our present infected age. But it does refuse to let them have the final word. For one thing, the thrill of discovery and improvement can be motivated by wonder. For another, I don’t believe that sadness is the conclusion we are headed for, or that disappointment is the definitive nature of things. The universe belongs to God: He sets its tone, and He is full of joy (Psalm 16:11, Luke 10:21, Galatians 5:22, et. al.). Broken though it currently is, He is in the process of making all things new (Revelation 21:5), This is truth which should be received with wonder, and encourages its cultivation.

We seem very good at spotting what’s wrong. Almost everything that happens on the internet can be fitted in to a common timeline: discovery – celebration – fault-find – discard. Undoubtedly there are abundant faults and foolishness, but the relish with which these perfectly obvious problems are found out – human being acts selfishly shocker, etc. – seems out of all proportion to the significance of the discovery. It’s as if politicians in election season are our model. There is certainly a place for criticism when the emperor really has no clothes on, but I’m not sure that’s fitting as our default outlook. Look for the good and say “Wow”, a word whose very mechanics of pronunciation feel appropriate as we almost inhale the goodness.

I’m writing this as the sun glints off the plane’s wing, just before we plunge into a cloud, whereupon the sights of London will greet us. London: proud, unjust, bloated, but worth a “Wow” as well, I think. As are the clouds above it and the people in it. "Wow" and then, "Thank You."

“Earth's crammed with heaven,And every common bush afire with God,But only he who sees takes off his shoes;The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”(Elizabeth Barrett Browning)


This week: Stephen Fry, manure, money, PC gone mad

I danced and took photos (not simultaneously) at the King's Church ceilidh.

Of the many, many things that have been written about Stephen Fry's rant at God, I've chosen just three for you. Krish Kandiah and Pete Greig follow Proverbs' advice that "A gentle answer turns away wrath" (15:1). Tim Stanley is rather more caustic. My main thought on the whole thing (apart from wondering why I didn't join in all the writing) is pleasure that British Christians have responded eloquently and confidently, which would not not always have been the case.

When Revelation 21:1 says that there will be no more sea, is that really what it means? Dennis Johnson explains why there's hope for surfers in the goodness to come.

With some very strong language at the end, Nick Cohen argues that politically correct censorship defeats itself.

The magic in manure is explored by Richard Fortey.

Steve Tibbert gives a church leader's perspective on how to handle money.

Finally, what does it mean to be human? Maybe you can help answer that...

A quest for a tunnel, and beyond

One of my favourite cycling routes in Edinburgh involves a lap of Holyrood Park / Arthur's Seat. The long upwards incline is a struggle (I was once overtaken by a jogger) rewarded with breathtaking views (though I usually have little breath left at that point) and a sweeping slope back down again.

Considering this route for yesterday's ride I looked over the Spokes cyclists' map of Edinburgh and realised that on my many journeys to Holyrood I had unknowingly ridden over a tunnel that was part of the cycle network: the Innocent Railway Tunnel. Not entirely sure how I had managed this (although Edinburgh's ups and downs conceal a multitude of secrets), I decided to try to find it. After a couple of false turns in the intimate roads and residents' parking zones of East Parkside, there it was.

Stopping suddenly to take this photo I nearly invited a collision with a rider close behind me. My speed was soon similar to his as the smooth tarmac and my road tyres gripped each other and sent me racing along. The only thing that slowed me down was a desire to take more photos and get my bearings, worked out by considering the angle of the shoulders of Arthur's Seat from where I now was. A display board told me that the Innocent Railway was so called because it initially didn't use "dangerous" steam locomotives but was pulled by horses. A pheasant watched me as I read.

One small adventure completed, I carried on for more. Trusting that National Cycle Route 1 could not see me far wrong, I continued for several miles. Edinburgh has many photogenic locations but I was not in one now. The presence of water to the right of the path meant several small parks had been made to accommodate this block on building, whilst rudimentary geometric housing to accommodate the rest of us loomed on my left.

Further human intervention filled the water way too. Whilst noting another subaquatic shopping trolley, I saw a flash of white feathers. A bird I didn't recognise was perched in the stream, brown of hood and wing but with a bold white bib. Of course it resisted my advances to photograph it close up and skipped along the water, pausing only to give me false encouragement that I would be able to get nearer next time. Later research revealed that this was a Dipper.

On the path went, over and through the inappropriately-named Jewel and other places whose names I only vaguely recognised. On reaching a road crossing with a sign welcoming me to Edinburgh I decided I'd gone far enough and dutifully turned up a hill that promised to take me to the city centre. A glimpse to my right changed my mind. Boldly blue and enticingly close: the sea. Down a couple of side roads and I was in Edinburgh's beach district, Joppa and Portobello. Gangs of white gulls and smaller collections of oystercatchers with their orange blazes contrasted with the deep bright blue. I loved Edinburgh some more and thanked God for letting me live here.

The way home was now obvious and direct, uphill and into the wind. A price well worth paying for an unknown tunnel, an unseen bird, and the familiar joys of an extinct volcano and the sea.