Visualising Hope: the book

1 11 2008

Visualising Hope  is a new book that I have written about research that I conducted among young people in Central and Eastern Europe. I discovered a massive gap in understanding between young people and church leaders. The only way forward, as I could see it, was to spend some time listening to young people. I also thought it would be a bit awkward to just walk up to young people and start asking them about their search for meaning in life. Read more . . .


The challenge of positivity

5 08 2014


I admit that seeing the ‘Positivity Challenge’ circulate among my Facebook friends came as something of a relief. I do have a few friends who seem to use Facebook as a means of broadcasting all of the things that go wrong in their day. I know they probably don’t intend to complain, and probably the support and sympathy expressed by friends is a ray of light in a difficult situation. But sometimes reading my newsfeed feels like having people near and far shout their complaints at me. This phenomenon could be the reason for the genesis of the challenge to make three positive statements for seven days running.

Recently, one of my lovely friends completed the challenge and nominated me to give it a go. However, in typical Sarah Dunlop style, I began to over think it. I’m not sure Facebook is the best medium of reflection for those given to introspection – it takes me nearly 24 hours after something has happened to parcel it into a few words to put in my status line.

I do believe that positive thinking is very powerful; I have experienced this myself. I confess that I am someone whose first reaction is at times to be critical. So, an exercise in being effusively positive seemed like a really good idea.

But then something started to niggle at me. Here’s the sticking point: on Facebook I have the illusion of staying in touch with many friends from different parts of my life with very little effort on my part. But, sometimes I have discovered through other channels that although someone may have been posting happy thoughts for weeks on end, it turns out that some really difficult and horrible things have been going on in their private lives, things that never made it into their status updates. Now, of course I’ll be the first to say that Facebook may not be a safe place for telling everyone about highly personal, heartbreaking situations. But still, I have felt that my friends’ public positivity now distances me from them, because I realise that I don’t know what is really going on in their lives.

Now, some people may be thinking that it is pointless to be so concerned about partial positivity on Facebook, because it is just a bit of fun. But I disagree. I believe it is the way that we are defining our lives to the many people who are our ‘Facebook friends’ and it is also a means for defining our lives to ourselves.

Based on their studies of young people in Britain, Savage, Collins-Mayo and Mayo hypothesized that people promote a ‘happiness midi-narrative’, which is a worldview characterised by believing that everyone’s goal should be happiness, everyone has a right to happiness, and everyone wants to be around happy people. I encountered this in my own research in Ukraine, when I met a young woman who kept a ‘happiness journal’ in which she recorded not what actually happened to her in the day, but all the happy things that she wished had happened.

What is frightening is that people with this worldview believe that their friends don’t want to hear about their personal disappointments and hardships, and so instead promote a false positivity. The problem, of course, is that often life isn’t happy, and a depression goes un-noticed or a difficult situation is dealt with alone because it is hidden behind a façade of happiness.

It’s hot, I’m 14 years-old, sitting in the backseat of my parents car between my two brothers, one of whom is asleep and leaning his sweaty head on my shoulder. I can’t read my novel because I’ll get carsick and the ten-hour journey to my grandparents’ house is dragging. I’m being very grumpy and sarcastic, and my mother turns to me from the front seat and says, “You know Sarah, you can choose whether to be happy right now.”

Those words echo in my mind today – sometimes I can focus so much on what is going wrong or what I don’t have, that I forget what I do have. And so, by focusing on the positive, I can find a level of joy in the present.

Perhaps what matters is how I deal with heartbreak and personal failures and disappointments. Although these do not make me happy, with God’s help I can find a means of walking the path of my life. And I do believe that God is at work in the world and through his eyes I can find points of light in the darkness. And those points of joy may be like tiny twinkles in the night sky or like the dazzling sun on a hot day. But either way, it should be celebrated.

So, I will do the positivity challenge.

My own personalised advent

11 12 2009

Advent means ‘expectant waiting for a much longed for event’. Waiting. That’s essentially what we are doing, in the run up to Christmas, isn’t it? Waiting for the Christ-child to appear on the scene of salvation history.

I’m waiting too. Waiting for a child to be born. This too is a much longed for child.

I have had four responses to waiting for our child to be born:

  1. Forgetting that I’m pregnant
  2. Scurrying around buying and collecting things that the new baby will need
  3. Enjoying the moment and not wanting it to end – the wonder of the niggles inside me – enjoying the bump – not worrying about childcare or feeding, it’s all so simple and taken care of
  4. Fear about the child changing our lives forever. It’s this that gives me pause. Am I willing to allow this small human to take over my life? Is what I have to give to this child enough? What if I make mistakes?

When you think of Christmas coming, what do you feel? I confess my first thought is, ‘Actually, I haven’t thought much about it yet.’ It’s easy to get into the rhythm of life and allow the advent season to wash over me until Christmas is suddenly upon me. Andrew and I are notorious for not remembering to send out Christmas cards until 26 December. Usually we only send them to friends who are far away and whom we miss very much. The first line is always, ‘Sorry this is late . . .’

The other response that I often have to Christmas is dread. Yes, I am traumatized by the prospect of Christmas shopping. I am not one of those people who intuitively knows the perfect present for each person on my list. In fact, I find Christmas shopping highly stressful. Even if I manage to think of a present idea, I face the challenge of finding it and then (most of the time) working out how to post it the USA. I am now very grateful for Amazon wish lists and think that every considerate person should have one. But it is possible, isn’t it (let’s be honest) to spend the weeks before Christmas racing around shops and websites buying things.

People ask me whether I am ‘expecting’. (No, I tell them, I’m smuggling basketballs under my jumper!) Yes, indeed – I am ‘expecting’ a baby to be born. I have no idea whether the experience of parenthood will match my preconceptions.

What about you? What are you expecting? What do you expect Jesus will bring into your life this Christmas and New Year? Will you allow his presence to take over your life? Change your identity? Become the centre of all that you are and every activity that you undertake?

As Christians we not only think of the coming of Jesus as incarnate God in the form of a child. Our minds and hearts are drawn to the second coming of Christ – when he will turn the world upside-down (or right side-up!) and bring justice to human reality. Do you wait in expectation of this event?

It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the mundane practical necessities of life – I expect that I’ll soon be rather focused on the mundane! However, a wise friend of mine once said, ‘The things that count in life are the things that have eternal value.’ This truth can help us live our lives so that all of us are ‘expecting’ – living in anticipation of the second advent of Jesus Christ.

God vs religious systems

16 02 2009

In a 1999 interview with journalist Bill Moyers, Star Wars director George Lucas said, “I put the Force into the movie to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people—more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system.” [Christianity Today]

Fantastic. God is so much bigger and better than a religious system. But has this left us with a generation that who sees God more as fate than as an intelligent and purposeful deity?

The right to be happy

15 10 2008

In conversation recently, a friend was talking about how her two married friends have separated and are now going through a divorce. She said that they are seeing social workers to try to minimize the affect on their two small children. You could see as she talked that she was really struggling to make sense of why these two people, who seem to care about each other and their kids, would choose divorce, particularly when there was no evidence of infidelity. The only comment she could make was, “I guess they have the right to be happy.”

Do we live in a world that is so cautious of judging the actions of others that all we can say is that they have to right to be happy? What is this right and why do we think we have it? Do we have the right to be happy if exercising this right makes others unhappy? And how do we know what will lead to lasting happiness or what is just happiness for the moment?

Researchers are increasingly aware that happiness is seen in contemporary society as the goal of life. Savage et al discovered this in their study of young people in the UK, which they write about in Making Sense of Gen Y. I also discovered this longing and almost idolization of happiness in my research among young people in former Soviet countries, which I wrote about in my book, Visualising Hope.

But there is a difference between happiness as the goal of life and happiness as an inherent right. It has progressed from something to aim for to something that is owed us, here and now.

Most of us would think twice about making a choice to be happy that by direct consequence made someone else unhappy. As Benjamin Franklin said, “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” But I think we live in a naive world of believing that we can all have the right to be happy.

Who bestows this right to happiness on us? Is it a matter of just reaching out and taking it for ourselves? And what about people who are not happy? Is it their fault for not trying hard enough?

Christian Cliches

19 03 2008

Lost until Jesus Saved MeStanding in a long, slow-moving post office line today, I started talking to the man standing behind me. Over the course of the conversation we discovered that we are both Christians.

 He was estatic to discover that we were both ‘committed’ to our faith. He asked me, ‘But don’t you find it difficult, all the persecution we suffer at the hands of unbelievers? They just don’t understand our belief.’

I said, ‘Um, most people seem fairly tolerant of my beliefs and are happy to accept that my faith works for me.’ I told him how I don’t preach to people, but I do share the difference that trusting Jesus has made to my life. I mentioned that an awareness of God’s love has helped me to be less selfish, something that I really became aware of once I was married.

He said, ‘Yes, a lady at my church said that “There isn’t any room for selfishness because it doesn’t leave space for God.” That’s true, don’t you think?’

By now, I was aware of other people around us, also bored by the long line and enjoying some entertainment by appearing not to be listening to our conversation. I said, ‘Can anyone ever be free of selfishness? Isn’t it essentially human to be selfish? Our selfishness is the reason we need God.’

He thought for a moment, and then said, ‘I don’t really know what that lady meant. I guess it’s just important to “put Jesus first in your heart and have a heart full of Jesus.”‘

‘Um . . . what does that mean?’ I said. I knew what he was getting at, but his use of these Christian cliches was starting to get to me.

He waffled a bit and said it was something like reading the Bible every day and praying. Then it was finally my turn to send my package, so we said good-bye.

I don’t mean to be disrespectful of this kind and keen man. I’m certain he is sincere. But I’m troubled by his use of these stock phrases. I worry that he goes to church and learns a slogan without really understanding what it means. It makes me wonder about the depth of the preaching at his church. And I also wonder whether he uses these phrases on people who have never gone to church. If so, it’s no wonder people don’t understand his beliefs. He doesn’t.

Hearing God

14 03 2008

Several people have spoken to me recently about how they long to hear God speak to them, but how they never have. Some say they’ve prayed all their lives and never felt God’s presence. Do you think that anyone can learn to hear God’s voice?  Or are some people more sensitive to the spiritual realm than others? Just as some people have better eye-sight than others, are some people just naturally more open to hearing from God than others? I’ve always assumed the former, but I’ve started to wonder whether the latter might be true on some level.

Barbara Doubtfire writes that “Hearing God’s voice is an intriguing concept/experience.  I think the simplest way I view it is that so many experiences, when I reflect on them, are ‘as if” God has spoken….experiences of fulfillment (feeling full)…of penitence…of a shove to change direction…a ‘knowing’ – out of the blue but with certainty …”

The Jesuit priest Gerard Hughes puts it in his classic book God of Surprises, “God is mystery, a beckoning word, and He calls us out beyond our narrowness … The journey to God is a journey of discovery and it is full of surprises.”

I think that God speaks to people more than they realise. I remember when I first recognised that the soft, gentle ‘niggle’ in my mind was God’s voice. I then realised that he had been speaking to me for a long time, I just hadn’t fully understood that it was him.

For those who want to hear from God, I think they could pray and ask God to help them recognise his voice. Jesus’ words at the end of John 9 seem to indicate that he opens and closes people’s spiritual eyes, so I imagine this applies to people’s spiritual ears as well.