28/06/20 Shaping the Future

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This is my final Sunday message before I retire in a few days time. Technically, I’m on holiday, but I’ve been pleased to share these weekly thoughts during June.

I mentioned at my welcome in 2015 that moving to Wallsend was more than just a new chapter in my life and ministry as a follower and servant of Jesus Christ, it was a whole new section of the book. I’d married Naomi the previous year and we arrived with Freddy who was three months old. I now leave to retire with our completed family, Matilda and Pollyanna having been born during our time here.

At a time of change we naturally think about making a fresh start, sorting things out, reflecting on how we can do things better, and taking positive steps into the future.

Although the future is unknown, we can play our part to make it a better place. It has to start today, because the only place we can live is in the present. It’s said that there’s no time like the present. So, if we want to shape the future, we need to start today.

We don’t need a special occasion, or a time of change, even though it often helps. We can take positive steps that will help shape the future of our own individual lives and that of others at any time.

Let me share some lovely words by Denise Brine with you:

Father God, I seek your guidance,
For I have a part to play
In the shaping of tomorrow
By the way I live today.
Take my hopes, my dreams, my passions,
Take my strength, my weakness too.
Shape my life; fulfil your purpose;
Start today; make me like you.

If I want to shape tomorrow
Then I need to start today,
Seeking, Lord, a revelation
Of your will and of your way.
If my passions, prayers and lifestyle
Are the witness people see,
Do I need a reformation
Of your Kingdom-life in me?

My todays will shape tomorrow!
Does that prospect please your eyes?
Are there changes that must happen?
Are there faults to recognise?
Shape me as seems best to you, Lord,
Start today, and help me see
That tomorrow will be better
When your life is seen in me.

David (in Psalm 51) prays in verse 10: Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. The Message paraphrase words it in a very interesting way: God, make a fresh start in me, shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life. Matthew Henry suggests that David is praying, Lord, fix me for the time to come.

Life isn’t easy for many people today, especially with the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic. We need to be there for them and for each other. We can share the best of humanity, as well as the love of God, by small acts of kindness to others. A simple smile, an offer of help, a genuine word of encouragement, beautiful actions of love.

We are pilgrims on a journey,
We are [together] on the road,
We are here to help each other,
Walk the mile and bear the load,

I will hold the Christlight for you,
In the night-time of your fear,
I will hold my hand out to you,
Speak the peace you long to hear.

May that prayer be answered in each of our lives as we daily move into an unknown future, but one into which we can all take a hopeful and positive contribution.

Steady – Breathing Exercises App

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There’s a lot of anxiety and other mental health concerns around at the moment related to the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, and so anything that can help us is welcome.

Steady is an Android app that I’ve started using on my smartphone. I recently came across this recommended app in a magazine and expected to have to pay for it, but it appears to be free with no adverts.

Breathing exercises are a really helpful way of relieving anxiety and stress, and this app helps you tackle your anxiety. It also provides daily reminders and encouragement for hitting monthly goals and the like.

Update: I’ve discovered there’s also a free app (Insomnia) to help you sleep, this can be accessed via the above app.

Essential Chromebook Apps

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When I first got my Chromebook I downloaded loads of apps, but I’ve deleted many of them because you can do most things you want in the Google Chrome browser.

Amazon Prime Video and Netflix: Although you can watch movies and TV series in the browser, there are some apps that work better as apps and these are two that I do use. Other content providers are available.

Chrome Canvas: This is an excellent, and possibly little-known, drawing app that comes with the Chrome OS. Yes, you can use it in a browser on any operating system, but there are advantages of using the app on a Chromebook, not least the fact that the app defaults to full screen.

JotterPad: This is a wonderful distraction-free notepad app that I use on my smartphone and tablet as well as on my Chromebook. It’s free, but does have in-app purchases. Two of these are one-off payments to unlock extra features, but if you want to connect to a cloud services there’s a monthly payment. I’ve paid for the two one-off benefits, but haven’t bothered with the cloud integration as you can easily share the notes manually with other apps and services. There are many adjustments you via settings, so an altogether essential app for me.

Nimbus Screenshot & Screen Video Recorder: This is a Chrome browser extension rather than an app, but I include it here because it’s useful on whichever device you use this browser. It does what it says on the tin with many different options.

Photoshop Express & Snapseed: Everyone knows about Photoshop, and so their app for Android devices is pretty much a must-have. Snapseed is not so well-known, but it’s a neat little photo editing app to have in your Android tool box. Take your pick, or install both.

VLC: This media player is simply essential on any device, make sure you have the app on your Chromebook.

ZArchiver: If you work with ZIP files this is an essential app.

Note: I hope this selection of Chromebook apps is useful to you, and remember the apps can be used on any Android device.

PaperScan Pro for FREE

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As the situation with COVID-19 unfolds, ORPALIS is offering a free subscription of PaperScan Pro Scanning Software valid until April 2021, for everyone.

PaperScan Scanner Software is a powerful TWAIN & WIA scanning application centered on one idea: making document acquisition an unparalleled easy task for anyone.

Use PaperScan to import any image/PDF files, arrange them in any imaginable single-page/multi-page configuration, perform a wide range of image adjustments and enhancements, annotate them with sticky notes, rubber stamps, highlighter or arrows and save your work in various file formats including JPEG, TIFF, PDF and JBIG2. PaperScan is simply universal while most of the scanning applications are dedicated to one scanner or one protocol.

Download PaperScan Pro from here
Use the following license key: SW4gdmlubyB2ZXJpdGFz

Happy the Man (Dryden-Horace)

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I read this poem the other day and, apart from the general ideas it conveys, I feel it’s especially appropriate in the current situation of coronavirus pandemic lockdown. Many of us are finding it difficult working from home (or in restricted circumstances) and are not as productive as we normally would be. But if we ‘have lived for today’ as best we can, we can truly say ‘I have had my hour’.

Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He who can call today his own:
He who, secure within, can say,
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.
Be fair or foul or rain or shine
The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate, are mine.
Not Heaven itself upon the past has power,
But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.

John Dryden (1631-1700)
translating Horace (65-8 BCE), Odes, Book III, xxix

A Year of Us (Naomi Ager)

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Naomi and I have been considering the adverse effect the coronavirus pandemic lockdown can have on couples, especially those (like us) with young children. I posted something to this effect on Facebook today, not because we had fallen out, but because we both recognise that couples need to work harder on their relationships in times of crisis. This is her guest post. Thank you Naomi, I love you.

I saw this book on Amazon and, given the stress we find ourselves under as a family, but more so as a couple in these days of lockdown, I thought engagement in a couple’s journal together might work in some way to deepen our connection and allow us to explore each other and not lose sight of ‘us’.

There’s always something else you can learn about the person you love whether you’ve been together for a week or 60 years. By sitting together each evening to explore the 365 interesting questions laid out in this book, I feel it will give us a beautiful insight into our hopes and dreams, as well as our most desperate needs that perhaps are going by the wayside right now.

I’m personally finding it difficult to do something as simple as engaging in meaningful conversation when the children have gone to bed. But, having explored this book prior to us starting it together, I think it will give us the opportunity to bring up issues whether deep and heartfelt or more whimsical in nature.

In this period of lockdown, it’s more important than ever to maintain healthy discussions as a couple and to ensure important things are openly talked about. Things such as family finance and sex life (for example) and hopes for now and the future when we are eventually released back into the big wide world again.

It’s also important to talk about our hobbies and interests with each other, and in turn to encourage the person we share our lives with and love with the things that interest them. I want to take even more of an interest and have a better understanding of what interests John. So maybe I’ll read up on stars, planets, space and the universe or listen to one of his weird and wonderful music albums.

Making time to talk about our interests outside of homeschooling the children and general survival at this time, in my opinion, can only solidify the foundation of our relationship and improve life massively, especially whilst living under such pressure.

I plan to share a lot of the daily questions with my friends on Facebook, so they too can sit with their other half, turn off the television, put pen to paper and learn a little more about each other.

Lockdown Tiredness?

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There have been times during the coronavirus pandemic lockdown when I’ve been overcome with physical, mental and emotional tiredness the like of which I’ve rarely experienced in my sixty-five years. Some of this can easily be explained by my circumstances, but much of it appears inexplicable at first.

Yesterday was a relatively good day for me, although even on those good days we can be easily knocked off balance. Today I’ve struggled with concentration, energy level and motivation. I’m forcing myself to compose these words, partly because I find writing cathartic and therapeutic, but also because (and I say this humbly) I know many of you are being helped by my blog posts.

Here is why you might be feeling tired while on lockdown

This article (published in early April 2020) is very insightful in helping to understand why we might be feeling tired (apart from the obvious things in our own circumstances) and considers how we might be feeling at the current point in the lockdown.

Full functional adaptation to a new way of life will happen after about three months. However, there is one period to be aware of that can occur around three weeks after the start, when a person can succumb abruptly to a bout of melancholy and a loss of morale. The worry in this case may be that the lockdown situation has now become permanent. But once this phase has passed these feelings of despondency tend not to return.

As well as addressing why we feel like we do, there are also some useful coping tips. Share how you’re coping in the comments or on social media.

Digital Wellbeing (Sue Thomas)

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Our lives crossed when I lived in Leicester and we’ve been Facebook friends since. Sue Thomas has some important things to say about digital wellbeing and I’m pleased she agreed to write a guest post for me. Her book is excellent, click here for details.

I have spent the last 15 years researching the connections between nature and our digital lives, trying to find out whether it is possible to get a real connection with nature through technology. After speaking with and studying many important thinkers in the technology industry, environmental psychology, design, and urban planning, I felt certain that it is.

At times, my findings have been seen as controversial, but today in the COVID-19 epidemic that has changed. Now, digital wellbeing is becoming a lifeline for people stuck indoors for days and weeks on end. Some of the techniques I learnt about, such as watching nature on screens, following wild animal webcams, and listening to recorded birdsong, are being recommended by health experts. More and more researchers now know that such activities reduce stress and anxiety. Even playing a video game with natural landscapes can promote mental wellbeing!

So here are a few tips to help you get the benefits of nature while you’re stuck indoors during the epidemic.

  1. First things first – what can you see from your windows? If nothing much, consider moving the furniture around. A good view of greenery, trees, or even just more sky, can slow your heart rate and help you relax.
  2. When you’re browsing through Instagram, don’t swipe too fast. Take a moment to stop and appreciate the breath-taking sunrises, evocative dusks, gorgeous landscapes and intoxicating blooms. Imagine the texture of those leaves and petals. Recall the scent of that bluebell wood. Remember running your fingers along the bark of that oak tree? The sensuous outdoors is right there in your phone.
  3. Choose a new wallpaper for your phone or computer screen. Research has shown that pictures of dense groups of leafy trees are very calming, so why not search for a jungle or forest? Then make sure you set time aside on a regular basis to just be with that image and sink into it, perhaps even meditate for a short while.
  4. Do you usually ignore your houseplants? Now you have the time to give them some love and be rewarded with a relaxing biophilic experience. Gently clean their leaves with cotton wool and warm water, make sure the pot is moist and they have the light level they need. Chat to them if you like. There are benefits for both of you.
  5. Search for recordings of birdsong. They are everywhere online but the BBC is a good place to start. If you can listen with headphones that’s even better. Just allow your senses to fill with the memories of all the times in the past when you have wandered through a wood, sat in the park or just been out in the garden, yet never paid proper attention to the birds. Now you have the time to do just that. Enjoy!

Other Information: Sue Thomas is the author of Nature and Wellbeing in the Digital Age, available from Amazon in Kindle and Paperback. Visit her Facebook Page. She’s also on Twitter: @suethomas and Instagram: Digital_Wellbeing.

Sue also blogs here: https://suethomasnet.wordpress.com

See also: Recognising Birdsong

National Emergency Library

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Announcing the National Emergency Library, a collection of books that supports emergency remote teaching, research, independent scholarship, and intellectual stimulation while universities, schools, training centres, and libraries are closed.

In the coronavirus pandemic, you can browse 1.4 million digitised books made available in the United States. You can flick through these pages from anywhere in the world. In addition, there are more than 2.5 million extra public domain books available for free download.

Note: This special access is set to run until the end of June 2020 unless the pandemic goes on for longer.

10 Tips for Top Sleep

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First of all, let me say I’m not an expert on sleep, although I’ve read widely about it and written about The Need for Sleep on this site.

Sleep can be elusive at the best of times, but in the midst of the current coronavirus pandemic, it can be even more difficult with so many emotions and thoughts going through our minds.

Here are tips I’ve found helpful and I try to apply them whenever possible. Although I don’t always get it right, especially with three young children.

  1. Stick to a specific sleep schedule, try to settle down and wake up at the same time each day. Remembering that a lie-in at weekends won’t make up for and lack of sleep during the working week, and might well make it harder to get up on Monday morning.
  2. Try to avoid caffeine, alcohol and nicotine too near to bedtime as these can be detrimental to good sleep. The latter two are not a problem for me as I’m teetotal and don’t smoke, but caffeine can be. I don’t usually drink coffee after 12 noon (2.00 pm at the latest) although I still drink tea, and so to reduce my caffeine intake before bed I’ll often drink decaffeinated tea. Another option is herbal tea, which I try to drink at least once a day, usually with a teaspoon of acacia honey to sweeten.
  3. It’s often tempting to eat late into the evening, but this isn’t always a good idea. I’m also at an age when my bladder can wake me up in the night, so I try to balance the need to be hydrated with my overall fluid intake.
  4. Exercise is good, but not too near bedtime. We all know that exercise is beneficial for our overall health and wellbeing, but it’s better done earlier in the day.
  5. Naps are good and can help to make up for lost sleep, but it’s best not to take these after the middle of the afternoon as these can then make it harder to fall asleep at night.
  6. Make sure you unwind before bed if possible, schedule it into your daily routine. Reading or listening to music can be helpful ways to relax.
  7. Avoid screen time before bed and, if possible, keep smartphones and tablets out of the bedroom. You can also use a blue filter to reduce the detrimental effect of screen light while winding down to sleep. Many devices and operating systems now have these built-in, or there are apps you can use. You can also turn the brightness down.
  8. A hot bath is good for helping you to relax and unwind, but also the lowing of body temperature that occurs after a bath helps you to become sleepy.
  9. Make sure your bedroom is dark and cool, and get rid of anything that might distract you. If it’s not completely dark you could try an eye mask.
  10. This last tip depends on you as an individual and may vary in different circumstances. If you can’t sleep, do you get up or simply lay resting? I usually apply the rule that if not sleeping is making me anxious it’s probably better to get up for a while before returning to bed, otherwise I stay put. But always avoid the temptation to check your smartphone.

Finally, in all of this don’t forget the old adage, that an hour of sleep before midnight is worth two after midnight. Sleep well.