Something on Your Mind?

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I teach mindfulness and stress management to my students.  It seems to be more than just an academic enterprise by a teacher of religion. It is needed. The problem today is that we have multiple distractions.  Gone are the days when a simple story was considered good entertainment.  Even moving image fails to connect for long.  Why?  Because we are bombarded with stimuli.  Our young people expect it not only to have “bells and whistle,” but to be interactive as well.  So taking a few moments to stop and reflect is a lost art.

This said, however, we also have the burdens of modern society as well as its distractions.  Bills, workload, and upcoming appointments can fill our heads as well. Here again a few moments of “down time” is vital.

And how do we put all this to the wayside? By making a conscious effort to focus on the wholesome.  Nature, a quiet piece of music, and the Word are all starting places. Ultimately Paul guides us in Philippians  4:8: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

Focusing on the good.  Taking time for a breathe.  Putting cares aside.  Herein begins healing.

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Interpretive Reading

Let’s face it, there are thousands upon thousands of outstanding pieces of literature out there. Many of them present images and sentiments we would love to express in language that is often beyond our literary gift to produce ourselves. So why not use them?

There are at least two ways we can present such material. We can incorporate them into our own addresses, or we can present them as standalone features. Either way, there are some simple rules and techniques we should follow and/or employ.

Select a passage that is meaningful to you. Random selections don’t always “speak to you,” so they are harder for you to “speak to others.” Once you have found your piece, read it through a few times. Are there any aspects of it that “drag” such as lengthy descriptions? If so edit these. Abridgment and minor paraphrase is okay in order to make the passage “your own.” Be careful with dialogue as well. “He said,” “she said,” can become monotonous, so limit these by using vocal modulation to suggest character change.

It is okay to mark your manuscript as well with tags and notes to yourself. This after all is a reading not necessarily a recital, and as such no one will challenge your use of notes.
The exception to this last point is your introduction. A well prepared and memorised introduction gives the audience a sense of your preparation and helps build trust in them, and confidence in you. In your introduction, give a general overview of the source, and of the particular passage you are presenting. Context helps prepare and engage your audience. Be sure to make the proper attributions to the author as well.  Even if abridged or paraphrased in part, it remains their work.

Have fun with it, practice it, and try variations of it. When it sounds right to you, stick with that version.

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Allow the Little Children

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Religion is a serious and sombre affair.  It requires decorum and order.  The holiness of the act needs to be entered into with due reverence and contrition.  Well so much for religion!  Jesus called for faith and relationship, not outward acts of rehearsed piety.

A great example of this was when in Luke 18:16-17 people attempted to stop children from being brought to Him.

But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.
Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein.

Our relationship with God needs to be with the same wonder, innocence, and joy as that of children.  Let’s face it we have all been children, and been someone’s child.  Think of the relationship we have with parents.  We were (are) dependent, somewhat obedient, and generally trusting.  God calls on us to be the same way with Him.

Too often, we get caught up in our own “maturity” and like unruly youths – try it our own way.  If we are honest we often get it wrong.  Let us be humble to the examples of the Father, and our older brother – Jesus.  Let us not over emphasize “our” positions or roles. Definitely let’s not make our worship – “religion.”

Let us seek relationship.  Let us crave guidance and nurture from above.  Let us be as little children.  Incidentally, children do make noise, sing, and fidget.  So much for solemnity.

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Using Character and Voices in Storytelling

Tim Sheppard in his guide to storytelling makes the following suggestions on using accent and voices in your stories:

“There is a wide consensus that it’s okay to tell stories from another culture, with the proviso that you ‘make it your own’ – as with any story. If you normally use character voices successfully in your stories, you may want to use foreign accents in a foreign story. This is highly dubious. Making the story your own includes telling it from your own perspective, with your own voice. If you have grown up partly in that foreign country, that foreign accent may well be an authentic part of you – fine, then you will also know any cultural sensitivities to beware of. If not, any attempt at the accent will probably come across as a caricature, especially to native speakers. People can get very offended by caricatures, but they don’t get offended at heartfelt attempts (even when inept) to communicate genuinely – so stick to what is part of you. You can be welcomed telling a very foreign story to its own natives if you are heartfelt and respectful.”

That said, different “voices” for different characters can be highly effective in enriching your stories. The use of vocal modulation can aid in this. Such techniques as using short choppy phrases with a higher pitch can denote a child. A raspy, shaky presentation can be used to denote age. Be sure to practice ant of these in advance so that you do not lapse into your neutral (narrators) voice, or worse still confuse your characters’ voices.

So, stick to an authentic voice. Use only accents you are sure of. Try to avoid stereotypes. And once again find your own voice.

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Statistically Speaking

Mark Twain attributed the statement that, in politics there are “lies, damned lies, and statistics” to the British politician Benjamin Disraeli. It is true that statistics can be used to distort or confuse, but they are also useful, if used well, in enhancing your speeches.

First of all, statistics add realism to your speech. They give a concrete example on which your audience can anchor their understanding. These are not mere anecdotes, but factual data which can clarify the picture.

Statistics can stick with your audience. Solid round numbers are easily remembered and “taken away” by your hearers, where more complex arguments may have a more limited retention rate. After all “9 out of 10 dentists” or “70% of cat owners” are catchy phrases.

Statistics can also have an emotional impact or pathos on your audience. Large figures or percentages can have a “shock” value. They elicit an emotional response, because they can “proclaim” inequality (e.g. the number of homeless in an area) or illustrate burden (e.g. the rise in taxation rates).

Statistics raise your credibility, in that they suggest you have “done your homework.”

Statistics can also make appeals to authorities greater than your own, to support your views. By quoting figures you are inferring the authority of the studies cited, and the expertise of the compilers of the data.

Be warned however, too many statistics can, like too many chefs, “spoil the broth.” Use them sparingly, strategically, and thoughtfully.

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Rachel’s Weeping

Matthew chapter 2  reads: 16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
    weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.”

This is sometimes called the slaughter of the innocents.  This pungent passage calls attention to ultimate loss.  The events of Manchester on Monday echo this tragedy, and its impact for us in the West is profound.  Sadly such loss is more commonplace in sections of the Middle East and Africa.  War, hatred, and other human ills rob families, and the world of their most treasured assets – their children.

My heart and prayers go out to the families who have suffered the pain and anguish of the Manchester atrocity.  I myself have experienced the loss of a child, and while no two hurts are the same, I have at least some comprehension of their suffering.

But why on this occasion are we especially sorrowful?  It is probably because of the total senselessness of it. There are those who seek to use violence in the name of a benevolent, loving God.  How can this be so?  Scripture reassures us repeatedly of God’s love and concern for each of us, His children.  Add to this the fact that God is an all powerful being.  Would such a magnificent and mighty God need we frail humans to “fight for Him?”

So we are left saddened with yet another senseless act that destroys relationship and creates pain.  Let us pray for those who mourn, and for the peace that exceeds all understanding.

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Disfluency

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Disfluency is an interruption to the flow of speech. This may be a stutter, a prolonged unintentional pause, or the use of filler phrases such as “um,” “ah,” “like,” or “you know.” These breaks in communication can diminish the effectiveness of a presentation, and distract a listener or audience. Studies have shown that younger people use fillers more often than older people; and that sounds such as “um,” are vocal “fillers” used while the speaker is processing their next ideas. Disfluencies are not necessary though, and can be overcome. Simple measures to combat them include preparation (you are less likely to need time to formulate thoughts, if they have been done in advance). Practice also aids in avoiding fillers, as you will have already established you flow and are familiar with your ideas.  You may be able to overcome these interruptions in speech by asking someone to note and then point them out to you when you use them.  Being gently made aware of any reliance on disfluencies is the first step in conquering them.

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Freedom

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Joe and the Worship Team did a wonderful job again today, and the stress on the concept of our freedom in Jesus was really uplifting.  We each face daily struggles, whether in health, wealth, or relationship.  It at times easy to slip into a feeling of bondage to the circumstances.  But Jesus came to give us life, “and that more abundantly.” We are free of the biggest burden we can face – our own sin.  He took that burden from us, and carried it to the cross.  But He also is there to lift us up in all the little stumbles along the way too. Let not our hearts be troubled, He is there.  He breaks our chains, He opens our doors.  It is time to trust, and feel the chains fall away.

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Voice Care

Your voice is your primary tool as a public speaker or as a preacher. Taking care of it is therefore extremely important. Did you know you could over use your voice? In the UK 50% of newly qualified teachers, lose their voices at some time in their first year. That is just one example, but there are some things you can do to protect this valuable asset.

Warm up! It is always useful to warm up your voice before making a major presentation where volume and emphasis may take their toll. Try gently going through some conversational tone lines before taking to the podium.

Stay hydrated! Don’t let your throat get too dry. Be sure to drink sufficient non-alcoholic beverages before speaking, and for longer addresses have some water with you.

Don’t over stretch! Keep to your normal voice range. Keep the use of your upper and lower ranges to a minimum (for emphasis, not extended periods). Also, avoid unnecessary shouting or whispering.

Remember your posture! Your postural alignment influences the amount of muscular tension you experience. This affects the tone and resonance of your voice. Again, good posture can save on the strain to your voice.

Relax! If you are stressed your voice will be too. Use gentle breathing in your pauses, and when speaking – breathe and speak using the diaphragm.

Know the warnings! Limit speaking when ill, and avoid speaking when the throat is already showing signs of strain.

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Of Words and Symbols

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A parable is said to be a story (whether true or imagined) which teaches a spiritual or moral lesson.  Jesus often taught with parables.  These stories were verbal symbols which took complicated or at least unappreciated truths and put them into situations in which the audience could easily grasp.  He often used agricultural or domestic images in His stories as they were readily appreciated by His hearers.

Some of these are elaborate stories, such as the Prodigal Son with its multiple lessons of relationship and jealousy.  Others are brief,  such as “”Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” in Matthew 7.  The image is mildly comical, but its meaning is quickly understood.

I often have students ask if Jesus’ parables are all actual events.  This is actually a point that gets debated in some theological circles.  The answer I give is  a nuanced “I don’t know.”  There is the part of me which firmly holds that a sinless Jesus will not bear false witness. However, if His audience understood the words to be in the rabbinic tradition of elaborate illustration, it wouldn’t be a lie, as they would be looking for the point not the who, what, where, why and whens of journalism.  Not being of that time and place I rest on the “I don’t definitively know if the whole story is factual, but the underlying truth is a fact.” For the record, I do lean in myself to the literal truth of them though. It is a matter of faith not “proof.”

It is because of this that I see parables such as the rich man and Lazarus as theologically valid when discussing the afterlife, not just as a lesson on greed and charity.  So when studying let us find all of the Lord’s “truths” the literal, the implied, and symbolic. The bible is a far richer book than many see on first reading, it has many levels, and many treasures to be found.

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